October 31, 2014

Elyria
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Struggles can’t keep Howard down

CLEVELAND — There is an immensity to everything that is Ryan Howard. Despite being in only his second full big league season, he is a hulking figure at the plate: 6-foot-4, 250-plus pounds.
He has biceps that would take two large hands to fully encircle, thick powerful forearms and — more noticeable in the locker room than on the field, where he wears a baggy uniform top — an ample midsection. Even Howard’s round, expressive face and booming laugh dominate the Philadelphia Phillies’ clubhouse.
Perhaps that’s why Howard’s recent struggles are so jarring. After going 2-for-4, including a line drive home run off Indians’ starter Cliff Lee, Howard raised his batting average to .238 in the Phillies’ 10-1 victory Monday at Jacobs Field.
“I’m just trying to see the ball,” said Howard, describing his approach to Lee. “Before, I wasn’t (seeing it). I wasn’t able to pick it up. I don’t think it was anything pitchers were doing differently. It was me not doing what I normally do.”
Howard is a relative baby in baseball years, having registered just a season and a half of service time. But in that span, he’s dominated the game as few ever have.
Last season, Howard belted 58 home runs, a total exceeded by only five men in baseball history — Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Maris and Babe Ruth. Twenty-eight of those home runs either tied the game or put the Phillies ahead, and he knocked in a major-league-leading 149 runs — including 42 in August, the most RBIs by a player in a single month in 34 years.
But Howard’s 2007 season has born scant resemblance. Since he reported to Clearwater, Fla., for spring training in February, Howard has battled an assortment of leg injuries: a sore right knee, a strained left quad, an inflamed right hamstring. He kept the injuries quiet — it was never reported publicly until more than a month into the regular season — and for a time he refused to miss a game.
But to the eyes of Phillies manager and former Indians skipper Charlie Manuel, Howard’s injuries were as clear as day.
“He was sore and it caused him to get into some bad habits,” said Manuel. “He’s always stayed back well and let the ball get to him. He’s a technique, rhythm hitter. But because he was pressing and compensating, he was stepping too quick into his swing. It threw off his timing.”
In mid-May, the Phillies placed Howard on the DL. At the time, he was hitting .204 and had only 23 RBIs. After missing two weeks’ of action, Howard returned and promptly launched a home run in his second at-bat against the Atlanta Braves. Still, since his return May 25, Howard’s hitting only .269.
There is a feast-or-famine aspect to Howard’s hitting: he strikes out a lot — 181 times last season, the second most in the majors; already he has whiffed 67 times this year. Howard doesn’t put as many balls in play as Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero or Albert Pujols. But as his teammate Aaron Rowand says: “When he hits it, he hits it. Ryan doesn’t hit a lot of bloopers.”
As Howard moves around the clubhouse, he lumbers, leaning gingerly from side to side. His legs still ache. But like his struggles at the plate, it’s something he’s trying to get used to.
“Everybody’s going to struggle, everybody does,” Howard said. “Everything’s been different this year. I’ve been hurt. Teams have been playing shifts against me. This is all new. But you can’t have the good without the bad.”
Still, as quickly as he reveals his struggles, Howard flashes a wide grin and his natural moxie is back.
It’s a quality Manuel says makes Howard unique. Manuel has managed some of the greatest sluggers of this generation. Howard is only days, maybe weeks away from taking off, he says.
“He’s a technique, rhythm hitter,” said Manuel. “For a big guy, he’s not a typical slugger. He’s not Jim Thome, who just swings real hard. He’s a hitter. And, really, it’s just a matter of time, you can see it. He’s in a perfect spot to take off.”
Contact Pete Alpern at 329-7137 or palpern@chroniclet.com.