If the Phillies are going to make it to the Promise Land, they are going to have to do it astride the broad shoulders and back of Ryan Howard. Not Chase’s, mind you; not Jimmy’s, either.
To be sure, J-Roll is vital to their success, setting the table, scoring runs and, yes, even showing some serious pop at times. Utley is the cornerstone of the franchise, providing intensity and leadership by example. But it is Howard whom they’ve come to rely on for consistent production.
Frankly, Chase looks awful at the moment. He is even running up in the batter’s box on the first pitch and taking far too many terrible swings. He is in a real funk, but he has always been fairly streaky. He will come out of just as suddenly as he fell into it. He tends to wear down as the season wears on, a mark of how much effort he gives on even the most routine plays.
As is his wont, Jimmy always rallies in the latter third of the season, picking up his average, OBP, and overall game. If Jimmy is not on base, all notions of run production are academic. Howard, on the other hand, is never streaky. A slump for Howard is rarely more than an intra-game affair. He adjusts. He maintains an even temperament. He never falls into bad habits. And he is a big man with big power numbers who also hits for average. One of the keys to Howard’s game is his approach to batting practice, well documented since the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game. He doesn’t try to put on a show during BP. Instead, he works on his swing, meeting the ball, head down. Make contact and the home runs will come; and, of course, they have.
Howard trailed Mike Schmidt’s franchise record for home runs in a season by a single swing when play began last night. Watching him you knew number 48 was coming. So, apparently, did Frank Robinson, who ordered him intentionally walked in the first inning. Such is the growing respect and reputation of Howard. Despite the big ballpark there was little doubt Howard was locked in. He had homered in three consecutive games in New York and would have had more had the wind been more favorable. When he hit the record tying blast he paused at home plate for a moment before heading down the first base line. No serious styling, just a brief moment to watch the flight of the ball. Afterwards, Howard was his usual humble self. The records are nice, but he wants his team to play in the post-season.
There can be no greater tribute to this young star than that from Schmidt himself, who praised Howard to the media and in a conversation with the young slugger and noted that Howard was a much better hitter at his age than he had been at a similar stage in his Hall of Fame career.
You don’t have to tell the Phillies that.