While everyone, myself included, marvels and rejoices over Ryan Howard’s ascension to the most elite club in all of baseball – feared hitter – we should not forget there is a lot more to his game than his bat.
All season long I have argued the 6’4”, 252 lb, Howard is unusually nimble for such a big man, and is an excellent base runner who is also very good with the glove. Those early season fielding and throwing errors were merely growing pains, signs of a lack of concentration and experience rather than skill. As the season has worn on his scoops, dives and throws have saved the Phillies’ bacon more than once.
Last night we were treated to the full Howard package. He drove a sacrifice fly deep into the teeth of a strong wind in the first inning to plate the Phillies’ first run of the evening and followed two innings later with a no-doubt-about-it 2 run homer, his 45th of the season, into the Mets’ bullpen.
In the bottom of the third Howard made a terrific diving stop of a hard ground ball with two out and runners at the corners in what turned out to be the play that preserved the Phils 4-3 win. Pitcher Randy Wolf, the beneficiary of Howard’s largesse, patted his first baseman on the back not once but twice as they trotted off the field.
After the game Wolf had this to say to reporters about the NL leader in home runs and rbi’s:
"For what it's worth, he's got my vote for MVP," Wolf said of Howard, who is not usually mentioned in a speculative National League MVP race between Beltran and Albert Pujols.
"It's how he treats his success," Wolf said. "How he's always the same guy. How he's always trying to get better, always trying to get the edge and help our team win."
As a further sign of the respect with which Howard is viewed by the opposition, in his next plate appearance Howard was intentionally walked, a strategy that worked out for the Mets as they escaped a lead-off triple by Shane Victorino without giving up another run. Last week Howard was intentionally walked three times in the same game.
In only his second season Howard joins a few other players – Albert Pujols, David Ortiz and occasionally still Barry Bonds – as the guys most likely to receive a free pass in a crunch. This is baseball’s version of discretion as the better part of valor and it normally isn’t applied to one so young, but as Wolf noted, Howard is well ahead of where most sophomores find themselves not only in the box score, but in the dugout and most significantly, in his temperament.
Those of us who watch him every day are very fortunate to be along for the ride.