Ryan Howard primed for second half
Slugger looking forward to Phillies' run at division
The way Phillies slugger Ryan Howard sees it, Jason Michaels owes him a run batted in. Either Jason Michaels or Andruw Jones. Maybe both of them.
Now for a guy who passed the career 800-RBI plateau earlier this season, one more or less RBI wouldn't seem to make a whole lot of difference. This, though, was a special RBI.
In the days following the All-Star Game, Howard was closing in on his 1,000th Major League hit. He doesn't remember them all, but he certainly remembers the first one. He was a September callup in 2004 when he came to bat looking for hit No. 1.
"It was a warm, humid day in Atlanta," he said. "Paul Byrd was pitching for the Braves. He had some nasty stuff going for him. I hit a ground ball up the middle. I'll never forget it. Jason Michaels was on second base. Andruw Jones threw him out at home plate. It was on all the highlight shows. It was one of the top 10 plays of the day. They talked all about the throw and the play at the plate and then they said, 'By the way, that was Ryan Howard's first Major League hit.' I was an afterthought."
Not any more.
Soon after that day in Atlanta, Howard took over for Jim Thome at first base for the Phillies. Thome was a mentor for the youngster.
"Jim was very helpful to me," Howard said. "He always said, 'Don't get too high when things are going good and don't get too low when they're not.' He was a great guy. I had some work to put in."
Now Howard is the cleanup hitter on the team that reached the All-Star break with the best record in baseball. He was the National League's Most Valuable Player in 2006. His 10 grand slams are the most in Phillies history. His 271 career home runs are the second most in Phillies history, trailing only Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt. Since the 2006 All-Star break, he has the most home runs (247) and most RBIs (752) among all Major League players. In the seven weeks before the All-Star Game, Howard was hitting .373 with runners in scoring position. He had 16 hits in his last 41 at-bats (.390) of the first half this season.
And he wasn't invited to the Midsummer Classic.
Fortunately for all concerned, Howard was not offended at the snub. "The first base position is so deep with Fielder, Votto and Albert [Pujols]," he said." And you have Gonzalez and Teixeira over in the other league. It's always nice to be part of it, the festivities and all. At the same time, when else can you get three days off?"
So Howard used the break to gear up for the second half of the season and the Phillies' run at a fifth straight National League East championship and third pennant in four years. "We've just got to go out and do what we do," he said. "It helps to have the best pitching staff in baseball. We've got to stay healthy and keep it going."
There is a theory that Howard is not invincible at the plate, that he is vulnerable to defensive shifts and the wrong pitching matchup. Every NL team has a left-handed specialist on call for Philadelphia's lefty-laden lineup that has Chase Utley, Howard and Raul Ibanez, all lefty swingers batting 3-4-5. Howard's numbers, though, don't support that theory. From 2006-10, he led all Major Leagueers in home runs (64) and RBIs (212) against left-handed pitchers.
With those kind of numbers, Howard does not dwell on the milestones.
"A thousand hits? It comes when it comes," he said."I got 800 RBIs, but I didn't get the first one."
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.