Howard comes through in clutch

PHILADELPHIA - September 29, 2008 - The slugger went over to the kids, chatted with them for several minutes and signed an assortment of caps, balls and cards.

Considering all the boos Howard heard - probably from some of those children's parents - after striking out three times in a win over San Francisco a night earlier, no one could've blamed the 2006 NL MVP if he'd put his head down and headed straight to the clubhouse.

But that isn't Howard. He doesn't hold grudges. The humble big man with the mighty swing understands Philadelphia fans are fickle. He never lashed out, even though some of the knuckleheads, including radio talk-show hosts, wanted him benched or traded when he was batting under .200 in mid-May.

Howard stayed confident, worked through his struggles and put up mind-boggling numbers again. He finished with a major league-leading 48 homers and 146 RBIs, and raised his average to .251.

"Those numbers speak for themselves," manager Charlie Manuel said. "Who's close to him? You can say whatever you want to say, he's the best run producer in the league."

When the Phillies needed a clutch hit down the stretch, Howard delivered. He batted .352 with 11 homers and a club-record 32 RBIs in September, helping Philadelphia win its second straight NL East title.

As for the boos, well, they turned into "M-V-P!" chants.

"You want to come through when your team needs it and provide a lift," Howard said.

Closer Brad Lidge, who was 41-for-41 in save opportunities, was chosen the Phillies' most valuable player by the local chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Howard, though, could end up winning the NL MVP award for the second time in three years.

Howard is heavily criticized for striking out too much - he fanned 199 times for the second straight year. But few players have ever posted similar power numbers.

The 28-year-old first baseman has three straight seasons with 45 homers and 135 RBIs. Only three players - Babe Ruth (8), Lou Gehrig (4) and Sammy Sosa (4) - did it more times in their careers. That's quite an impressive feat, especially considering Hank Aaron never did it and Barry Bonds only got there once.

"He's our carrier," Manuel said. "He's the guy who puts up the big numbers. He's the guy that knocks in the 130 to 160 RBIs. He's the guy who's big in the moment. He bears down. He wants to be up there. He strives to drive runs in."

Though his average was mediocre, Howard came through in important spots, hitting .320 with runners in scoring position.

Overall, Howard is at his best in big spots. He has a .313 career average with 43 homers and 104 RBIs in 125 games in September.

Reggie Jackson is Mr. October and Derek Jeter is Mr. November. Can Howard be Mr. September?

"I don't know what it is," Howard said. "I just try to finish strong. I haven't thought about it. I'm just going out there and playing."

Howard leads a potent lineup that was far too inconsistent this season. Jimmy Rollins is the catalyst and Chase Utley is the team's best pure hitter. Pat Burrell, Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino each did their part, too.

Howard, however, is the hitter that other teams fear.

"He's been unbelievable," pitcher Joe Blanton said. "He gets big hits with runners on, timely home runs at the end of the game or to get us a lead early. He's always coming up when we need him, and constantly getting big hits. He's fun to watch."

For a while, it seemed Howard would have to find stardom somewhere else. His path to the majors was blocked by Jim Thome, who the Phillies signed to an $85 million, six-year contract in 2002.

Howard's former agent, Larry Reynolds, requested a trade before the 2005 season. Former Phillies general manager Ed Wade almost sent Howard to Pittsburgh, but the deal fell through. Turned out to be the best move Wade never made.

When Thome was injured in '05, Howard stepped in and never relinquished the job. He hit 22 homers and had 63 RBIs in 88 games to win the NL Rookie of the Year award. Thome was dealt to the Chicago White Sox that offseason and Howard was just getting started.

Knowing he'd play every day, Howard had one of the best seasons ever by a second-year player. He hit .313 with 58 homers and 149 RBIs to win the 2006 NL MVP award. No one ever had more homers in a sophomore season and only Joe DiMaggio drove in more runs - 167 in 1937 with the New York Yankees.

Last year, Howard batted .268 with 47 homers and 136 RBIs. He helped the Phillies reach the playoffs for the first time since 1993, but they were swept out of the first round by Colorado.

An early exit won't be acceptable this time.

"We have experience from last year, knowing what to expect," Howard said. "Hopefully, we take that experience, learn from it and go further."

Notes: Brett Myers (10-13, 4.55 ERA) was officially named the starter for Game 2 of the division championship series against Milwaukee on Thursday. Jamie Moyer (16-7, 3.71) will pitch Game 3 on the road Saturday. Cole Hamels is starting the opener Wednesday. ... The Phillies sent LHP Fabio Castro to Toronto to complete the trade that brought outfielder Matt Stairs to Philadelphia.

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