BRADENTON, Fla. -- Ryan Howard belted his first home run of the spring Friday afternoon.
He will probably have to hit at least 30 more during the regular season if this Phillies team is going to be a playoff contender.
More than just Howard’s power has to go right for the Phillies to have a chance this season. Cole Hamels’ health, the production of the rest of the lineup, the continued success of Cliff Lee and A.J. Burnett, and the performance of the bullpen are all key. But the man they call the Big Piece will have significant say on where the Phillies go.
After missing more than half of his team's games in each of the previous two seasons because of injuries to his left leg, Howard is finally healthy. He doesn’t move as well as he did before he blew out his left Achilles tendon in Oct. 2011. He lumbers and has a hitch in his stride when he runs. (He probably always will.) But the legs are sound enough for Howard to be on the field.
Now it’s about incorporating those legs back into his swing.
That’s what Howard has been working on lately.
Howard was pleased with his home run to left field in the sixth inning of Friday’s 6-5 loss to the Pirates. He took a fastball away from right-hander Jay Jackson and drove it the other way.
“I don’t think you can hit the ball that far to the opposite field without using your legs,” he said.
Howard has not found his rhythm yet at the plate. He struck out twice in the game, once on an inside breaking pitch, the other looking at a fastball down and away, and has 15 Ks in 30 at-bats. That ratio, of course, has to come way, way down, and it will as Howard sees more pitches and gets more at-bats.
Manager Ryne Sandberg likes some of the swings Howard has taken the last couple of games.
“The last two days I think there’s been more bat speed and a little more aggression,” Sandberg said. “I’ve just noticed a little bit better approach. He’s working on some things.”
Howard is working on a lot of things.
He’s trying to bring a bit more of a crouch to his stance and get away from standing up so straight. His leg issues led him to stand up straighter at the plate the last two seasons and that took the legs out of his swing, according to Sandberg.
Howard is also experimenting with a bit wider stance and the positioning of where he stands in the box. Last week, he was far off the plate. Earlier this week, he moved closer. Friday, he tried to find a happy medium.
Oh, and on top of all this, Howard is trying to shorten his swing.
Somewhere in between all these adjustments, he’s expected to hit the ball.
“They’ve been comparing some past films to some of these early at-bats,” Sandberg said. “He was a little bit wider and sitting down a little bit more in the past.
“So he’s trying to sit a little bit more, use a little more of a crouch and be a little wider, and that’s using his legs. He’s healthier and I can see where he’ll be using his legs as we go.
“For me, he just kind of got away from it with his stance because of not being healthy. He was a little more straight-legged the last couple years. A little bit more of a crouch and a little bit more of the bent legs is a better place for him.”
Howard has a history of standing far off the plate, and it can work against him as he struggles to cover the outer part of the strike zone. He’s working on getting closer to the plate and finding a spot that works for him.
“We’re trying to bring some pitches closer to him,” Sandberg said. “He’s working on getting a comfortable place to allow him to get to the outside pitch and drive it.”
He might have found a good place on the home run swing Friday.
Howard has spent time recently working with Greg Luzinski, who is in camp as a guest instructor. The Bull has offered some advice.
“We’ve been talking about trying to shorten my path up,” Howard said. “Over these last three or four games it’s been a work in progress. Now I’m working to kind of get that depth perception back because my path has changed. In my old path, I was swinging at balls way out in front. But now I can let the ball get deeper and get that timing back.”
The path Howard refers to is the path the bat head takes to the ball.
In other words, he’s attempting to shorten his swing.
“Yeah,” he said.
What prompted that?
“You always want to go up there with the shortest swing you possibly can,” he said. “I’m just working to get back to that.”
It’s a game of adjustments. Clearly, Howard is making many this spring.
And the Phillies desperately need them to pay dividends.
Fifth starter candidate Jeff Manship allowed two runs on six hits over four innings in the loss to the Pirates. Reliever B.J. Rosenberg was tagged for four runs in the eighth as the lead got away.
The Phillies (4-11-2) play the Red Sox in Fort Myers on Saturday night. Cliff Lee is the starting pitcher.