With drought over, will Howard find his power?

With drought over, will Howard find his power?

June 18, 2013, 12:30 am
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Ryan Howard went 3 for 3 with a home run in the Phillies' win over the Nationals on Monday night. (USA Today Images)

He skipped the spin and went right to what we already knew. Asked for his evaluation of a team that’s been under .500 for much of the season, Ruben Amaro Jr. didn’t bother to soften his words.

“Obviously we haven’t performed the way that we hoped,” Amaro said on Monday. “Particularly the guys who are our core guys.”

He named names. Amaro noted that Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz haven’t played much. He said Jimmy Rollins “has been OK, but I think Jimmy has also had better years than he has so far this year.” And then he got to Ryan Howard.

The general manager said Howard “hasn’t performed the way you’d typically expect,” which was pretty gentle language for a cleanup hitter that’s had a difficult season as far as power is concerned. Entering Monday’s game against the Washington Nationals, Howard hadn’t hit a home run since May 29. It was the second longest drought of his career.

It was an ugly streak, but it’s over now. Howard hit a homer in the second inning of the Phillies’ dramatic (if unnecessarily so) 5-4 win over Washington (see story). It was the first time Howard hit a ball out of any park in weeks, a stretch of 17 games and 71 plate appearances.

“It felt good,” Howard said. “I’ve just been trying to put together some good [at-bats] and let the power come as it comes.”

The power has not come as readily as it once did. Howard has eight home runs this season, which is not a great total for him -- not in June, not after the Phillies have played more than 40 percent of their schedule. If his baseball numbers were a little bigger and his contract numbers were a little smaller, you might hear all kinds or rumors and reports about Howard being a trade piece. That’s obviously not the case. Howard and the Phils are stuck with each other.

But while he hasn’t mashed as many home runs as he or the team would like, Howard has hit the ball better lately. He’s hitting .306 with nine extra-base hits in June. He’s hitting .391 in the last seven days. He went 3 for 3 against the Nationals on Monday, which raised his batting average to .274.

They still need Howard to drive in runs -- preferably by driving the ball over a wall of his choosing -- but hitting for a higher average, at least for now, is OK by Charlie Manuel. The manager has said pretty much the same thing about Howard’s hitting all season: First, that he’s not worried about Howard and, second, that if Howard hits for a higher average, then his power will return.

“Ryan, if he hits for a high average, like I said, if he hits .280, .300, he’ll knock in a lot of runs and he’ll hit a lot of home runs, too,” Manuel said. “Just by hitting the ball correctly.

“When he played games in Minnesota, Howard hit the ball very good. He got some hits there. The other day in Colorado, he hit two balls into the shift pretty good, and the two singles he hit, he hit pretty good. His swing’s been getting better. He’s been staying on the ball better. He’s been putting the fat part of the bat on the ball. He’s been doing better.”

Howard’s left knee, however, isn’t doing much better. According to Manuel, the soreness “comes and goes” for the first baseman. After the game, Howard was limping around the clubhouse a little.

“It’s always a grind,” Howard said about trying to improve at the plate. “With the knee. Without the knee. That’s always a grind. Yeah, it’s been a grind, just trying to go out there and do what I can. I was able to get a couple knocks tonight.”

It’s a start. Again, they need some of those knocks to travel a good distance and do so regularly. They are paying him a lot of money, and it isn’t so he can be a singles hitter in the four-hole. But if Manuel is right -- if hitting the ball well will eventually lead to hitting the ball far -- then perhaps Howard is about to get going. Does the slugger feel like he might start slugging soon?

“We’ll see,” he said.

“We’ll see,” he repeated.

We haven’t seen much so far. Maybe that will change.