Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said Ryan Howard still has some physical limitations when it comes to playing first base, thanks to the knee injury that ended his 2013 season last July 5.
“I think he has some restrictions there,” Sandberg said Thursday, a day after Howard’s costly error in the Phils’ third straight loss.
With the score tied at 4, Howard misplayed a sharply hit bouncer by Logan Schafer, allowing Mark Reynolds to score the eventual winning run from third. The Brewers went on to win 9-4.
It was Howard’s first official error this year, but Sandberg said Howard looks to be restricted physically from getting low enough to play defense the way he needs to.
“Whether he’s slightly restricted on getting full athletic position and really getting down and low where a guy would want to be, he is restricted to some extent there,” Sandberg said.
“But even last year, with a bum knee, he was fine as far as picking balls and receiving balls and actually throwing to the bases. It’s continued work and practice, and I see him improving in that area.”
Howard didn’t speak with writers after Wednesday night's game but did speak at his locker Thursday afternoon before the Phillies and Brewers finished their three-game series at Citizens Bank Park.
He said the error was simply the result of him trying to throw before he had the ball.
“I was just too quick, too quick,” he said. “Kind of took my eye off it a little bit and tried to make the play to go home, but the first rule of thumb is you’ve got to get the ball first before you can try to make the throw.
“Just came off it a little too quick and tried to make the move.”
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said after the game the play should have been ruled a hit (see story), but Howard said it was correctly called an error.
“I definitely would have had a play [at home],” he said. “It was an error. It was an error. I had it. I had a clear play on it, it just got to me too quick.
“Rule of thumb, kids out there, take your time, field it first. Make the play, make the throw second. I just tried to be too quick, brought my head up a little too fast and didn’t have the ball.”
Howard, who is 5 for 28 since a two-hit opener in Texas, said he’s still struggling with judging ground balls headed for the first-base cutout.
“You’re trying to read where the ball’s going to hit,” he said. “If the ball’s kind of coming toward the lip where the grass and the dirt meet, it’s kind of a tough read, because if it hits right there on the lip, you got to play whether it’s going to skip and stay down or it’s going to come up.
“We have a really fast infield, so for me, a lot of those balls right now, until I can get better reads on them, just try to keep them in front.”
Sandberg said he and his coaches will continue to emphasize defense to Howard, the 2006 National League MVP.
“It’s a process and it’s continued work, which he’s doing and he’ll continue to do,” he said.
“But I would say that he’s a guy that’s known to be good at that, with balls in the dirt and a guy that picks up the infielders. He has the ability to do that and he’s been good in the past, so it’s continued work and it’s being addressed. Stressing that.”
Overall, the Phillies are 27th in the majors with nine errors and 28th with a .970 fielding percentage.
They’ve committed six errors in their last three games leading to 10 unearned runs.
“Whether it’s [because it’s] early season, who knows,” Sandberg said. “But continue to work at it. [We are] coming off a spring training where we were very good on pitching and playing defense, so for me, it’s there.
“Just continue to stress playing good defense. … We did it all spring, so I anticipate it getting better with the guys we do have.”
The Phillies close out their series with the Brewers Thursday night hoping to avoid a four-game losing streak. But despite their 3-5 record and a share of last place -- no team in baseball has fewer wins than the Phillies -- Howard doesn’t see why people are doubting this team.
“We’ve actually played very well this year,” he said. “I disagree with everybody else.
“Our record doesn’t necessarily reflect that right now, but I think we’ve played well. We’ve had really three real bad games, so the only thing to do is go out there and try to win a game.”