Howard's goal: 162 games, 40-plus homers

Howard's goal: 162 games, 40-plus homers

February 15, 2014, 6:30 pm
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Battling injury, Ryan Howard has played in less than half of the Phillies' games over the last two seasons. (USA Today Images)

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Ryan Howard has played in less than half the Phillies’ games the last two seasons.

He predicts that will change in 2014.

“I feel like I can play 162 games,” he said after his workout at Bright House Field on Saturday. “My whole offseason was dedicated to trying to play all 162, plus trying to make it to the playoffs. My goal isn’t to come out here and try to play 120 games. That’s not why I play baseball.”

The first full-squad workout of spring training is Tuesday. Howard is in camp early and in a good frame of mind. He is upbeat and optimistic.

“I’ve got two legs,” he said with a smile. “Basically I’ve been playing on one leg” the last two seasons.

Howard blew out his left Achilles tendon on the final swing of the 2011 season and missed half of 2012. Last year, he shut down in early July when pain in his left knee became too much to bear. He had season-ending surgery to repair a cartilage injury.

After the surgery, Howard embarked on an extended rehab and conditioning program. It started in August in Clearwater and continued throughout the winter. The goal of the program: Get the leg healthy and strong; get his body in better condition; work on his swing and other baseball activities.

Physically, Howard looks good. He weighed 260 pounds when he shut down in July. On Saturday, he looked lean and muscular, his biceps bulging from his T-shirt.

“Right now I’m between 240 and 250,” he said.

At the plate, Howard’s left leg is his push leg, his power leg. He averaged 44 homers and 133 RBIs from 2006 to 2011, the last season in which he had a healthy left leg. Needless to say, he’s glad to have a strong, healthy left leg again.

“Am I capable of hitting 40-plus home runs? Absolutely,” Howard said. “If I doubt myself, nobody else will believe in me. I feel I’m capable of hitting 58 home runs. I did it once. I feel that I’m capable of doing that every year. It’s just a matter of going out there and letting the game come to me. You never know what may happen.”

When you’re healthy and on the field, that is.

Last winter, Howard still felt the effects of the Achilles tear. He said he couldn’t do running and agility drills in the offseason. So last spring, manager Charlie Manuel rode Howard hard during Grapefruit League play. Manuel’s theory was he wanted to play Howard into shape. Including intrasquad games, Howard played 14 straight days without a day off last spring. In all, he played in 28 games and had a good spring, hitting .322 with five doubles, seven homers and 16 RBIs. Howard said he began to feel soreness in his knee toward the end of spring training.

New manager Ryne Sandberg will not ride Howard as hard this spring.

“I wouldn’t say he’ll play the same string of games in a row for the fact that his weight is better and he’s in better baseball shape right now,” Sandberg said. “I can see he already is in better shape than he was last year, by far. His mobility is better. He’s stronger and able to use his whole body up there. I think there will be a reasonable number of at-bats for him to get his stroke and we’ll adjust it as we go and see how things are going.”

Howard turned 34 in November.

On opening day, the Phillies are expected to have six players 34 or older in their starting lineup – Howard, Cliff Lee (35), Carlos Ruiz (35), Chase Utley (35), Jimmy Rollins (35) and Marlon Byrd (36). There could be a seventh if 40-year-old Bobby Abreu makes the club and is the designated hitter in the March 31 interleague game at Texas.

After winning five straight NL East titles from 2007 to 2011, the Phillies have missed the playoffs the last two seasons. They won just 73 games last year and look like a third-place team heading into 2014.

To be better than that, the Phils will need a healthy and productive Howard.

“For us, the guys on this team, we know we’re better than that,” Howard said. “We know we’re capable of a lot more. We have more expectations of ourselves this year for going out there and putting a better show on the field.”