Smaller frame, same power for Howard

October 5, 2009 1:51:12 PM PDT
When the Philadelphia Phillies needed a big hit down the stretch, they usually got it from their biggest player. A slimmed-down Ryan Howard still provided his usual power in the middle of the batting order, helping the defending World Series champions capture their third straight NL East title.

While other hitters in Philadelphia's potent lineup slowed down in the second half, Howard got better. He hit .304 with a major league-best 23 homers and 74 RBIs after the All-Star break. Howard finished with a .279 average and 45 homers, and his 141 RBIs tied Milwaukee's Prince Fielder for most in the majors.

The 29-year-old All-Star first baseman became the fourth player to have four straight seasons with 45 homers and 130 RBIs, joining Babe Ruth (seven), Ken Griffey Jr. (four) and Sammy Sosa (four). Considering Hank Aaron never did it and Barry Bonds only reached those totals once, it's an even more impressive feat.

"That's cool," Howard said after joining the select group. "That's good company to be a part of. That's doing something. It's a pleasure to be a part of that."

But chasing the all-time greats doesn't motivate Howard, nor do individual goals. He's always tried to be the best player he can to improve the team's chances of winning. That's his top priority.

After helping the Phillies win the second championship in franchise history last fall, Howard could've sat around during the offseason and reaped the benefits. Champions get plenty of attention and many perks. Instead, Howard went to work, training hard to get himself in top shape to be ready for this season.

While his agent and the Phillies worked on a new contract - they agreed on a $54 million, three-year deal in February - Howard hit the gym. He reported to spring training at 235 pounds, 40 pounds lighter than he was the previous spring.

Howard, who is 6-foot-4, kept the weight off during the season and it paid off, especially in the field and on the basepaths. He dramatically improved his defense, cutting his errors down to 14 from 19 a year ago. He showed off his new speed by stealing eight bases after swiping two in his first five seasons.

"I just wanted to have my whole body feel better and get quicker," Howard said last month. "I always knew what kind of athlete I was and I wanted to maximize it. I'm just trying to do what I can."

Since moving into Philadelphia's starting lineup for good on July 1, 2005, Howard leads the majors in home runs (219) and RBIs (634). He's always been Mr. September and he delivered again in the final full month this season.

Howard batted .303 with eight homers and 30 RBIs after Sept. 1. Catcher Carlos Ruiz (.316) was the only other starter to hit above .275 in September and October.

Chase Utley hit just .193. Utley, who bats third ahead of Howard, typically wears down late in the season. He's a career .269 hitter after Aug. 1, so the Phillies rely on Howard even more in the final months.

Utley, Howard and the other regulars had a chance to rest after Philadelphia clinched the division crown last Wednesday. They'll need to come out swinging for the Phillies (93-69) to get past the wild-card Colorado Rockies in the NL division series.

Game 1 is Wednesday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park. The Rockies (92-70) lost four of the six meetings between the teams in the regular season. But Colorado swept the Phillies in this spot two years ago.

"There's a lot of good teams out there," Howard said. "Obviously, we know what we can do. We're just going to focus on ourselves. You can't make any predictions. All you can do is go out there and play and hopefully we end up on top."

Howard hopes to carry his September streak into the postseason. He's hitting just .217 (5 for 23) with one homer, two RBIs and 12 strikeouts in seven first-round games. However, he batted .300 against Los Angeles in the NL championship series last year and hit three homers and drove in six runs in the World Series victory over Tampa Bay.

"It's the same (mindset)," Howard said, comparing the regular season to the playoffs. "You've got to go out there and win, regardless if you're defending."

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