Ryan Howard suddenly off to one of best starts of his career at the plate

Ryan Howard suddenly off to one of best starts of his career at the plate

Even back when he was bashing upwards of 40 home runs per season, Ryan Howard was a notoriously slow starter. Now all of a sudden, when everybody is least expecting it, the Philadelphia Phillies three-time All-Star first baseman might be in the midst of the best month of April in his 11-year big-league career.

With five homers through the first 19 games in 2014, Howard is one swat away from tying his personal best in the months of March and April, with eight more games to get there. Ironically, his best start from a power standpoint was in 2011, when his status as one of Major League Baseball’s elite deep threats was already dwindling.

Howard admittedly looked a little lost out of the gate this season, but has now gone yard in four of the last eight games, raising his slugging percentage from .400 to .543 in the process.

What does it all mean? Obviously, Howard is completely healthy for the first time since rupturing his Achilles tendon on the final at bat of the 2012 campaign. Even the most pessimistic fan who takes any opportunity to rip his unwieldy $25 million-per-year contract or ludicrous strikeout rate had to anticipate some return to form from Howard.

Yet as of this writing, the Big Piece is on pace to belt 42 this year, which would be more than probably the most optimistic projections. That would be his highest total since ’09, perhaps not coincidentally the last season the Phillies appeared in the World Series.

Could it be after missing more than half of each of the last two seasons, after listening to every critic who said he would never be the same player again, Howard is trying to make up for lost time?

When I say Howard was a historically slow starter, I mean his power was almost non-existent out of the gate some years.

In his MVP season of ’06 during which he slugged 58 bombs, amazingly only five of those were in the first month. The following season, Howard finished with 47 and a .584 slugging percentage after hitting just three with a .390 over the initial 21 games. In ’08, he wound up with 48/.543 after going 5/.343. ’09, only four of his 45 were in April. You get the idea.

In all, Howard easily has fewer home runs per plate appearance in March/April than any other month of the season. This time of year, you can expect him crush one once every 22.9 trips to the dish. From May 1 to the end of the regular season, it becomes every 15.3 appearances.

Enormous difference.

You can always tell when Howard is seeing the ball well, and lately, he’s in the zone. He’s staying back on pitches rather than out in front, which allows him to drive it. He’s hitting the ball the other way for power, like his shot against Colorado on Sunday and ensuing triple that just came up short. Howard’s even smashing lefties, ripping two of his five off the guys who would ordinarily be tossing Kryptonite.

Baseball is cyclical, and Howard is streaky, so setting the bar at the 42 homers he’s currently on pace for might be a bit high.

We’re not accustomed to Howard getting hot before the weather does though. If he’s smacking the ball all over the place now, could he actually set an even more torrid pace as the season marches on?

One thing is for certain, and that is the Phillies’ offense as a whole is benefiting from Howard’s power surge. Philadelphia finished 13th in the National League in ’13 with an average of 3.77 runs per game. At this early stage, the home team is fourth in run production at 4.32 per game.

Howard was always the most important part of the lineup during the Phils’ recent run of success. Now, he’s finally in good health and ready to play a full season for the first time in two years. If this keeps up, who knows where it could lead.

Could Howard swat the Phillies all the way back to the postseason?

Sixers-Grizzlies 5 things: Walking wounded duel in Memphis

Sixers-Grizzlies 5 things: Walking wounded duel in Memphis

The Sixers (4-17) open a three-game road trip against the Memphis Grizzlies (14-8) at FedEx Forum on Tuesday night (8 p.m./TCN and CSNPhilly.com).

Let's take a closer look at the matchup:

1. Walking wounded
There will be enough players between both teams for the Sixers and Grizzlies to play on Tuesday ... barely.

The Sixers, losers of seven straight, have several key players sidelined for the opener of this road trip. The biggest absence will obviously be Joel Embiid, who will sit out for rest after struggling Monday in the first game of the back-to-back set.

Joining Embiid on the shelf for Tuesday's game will be Jahlil Okafor and Robert Covington while Jerryd Bayless is questionable to suit up. That's in addition to Ben Simmons and Nerlens Noel having yet to play this season.

The Sixers won't find much sympathy in Memphis as the Grizzlies' injury situation is actually worse.

After using an NBA record 28 different players last season because of injury, the Grizzlies have already received a hardship exemption from the league this year to sign guard Toney Douglas. That's because the Grizz are currently down five players, including star guard Mike Conley and swingman Chandler Parsons.

2. One big problem
One player who will be suiting up for the Grizzlies is Marc Gasol, which is certainly bad news for the Sixers.

Now in his ninth season, Gasol is playing some of his best basketball. Despite the center's rebounds dipping to 5.7 a game, he is putting up career highs in points (18.9) and assists (4.2).

The Sixers know all too well just how good Gasol has been this season. The two-time All-Star went off for 27 points, four rebounds, four assists, three steals and three blocks in the Grizzlies' double-overtime win over the Sixers on the night before Thanksgiving.

That was before the Sixers got hit even harder by the injury bug. There's no telling what Gasol will do against a team with one available center in Richaun Holmes.

3. Foul play
With so many players not able to take the floor, the Sixers -- Holmes in particular -- would be wise to stay out of foul trouble.

The Sixers average 22.0 fouls per game, the fifth-highest mark in the league.

On the flip side, the Sixers could benefit from attacking the Grizzlies. Memphis is obviously limited with players because of its own injury issues and actually averages 23.8 fouls per game, the second-highest rate in the NBA.

4. Injuries
Bayless (wrist) is questionable. Embiid (rest), Okafor (illness), Covington (knee/illness), Noel (knee) and Simmons (foot) are out for the Sixers.

Zach Randolph (personal) is a game-time decision. Conley (back), Parsons (knee), Vince Carter (hip), James Ennis (calf) and Brandan Wright (ankle) are out for the Grizzlies.

5. This and that
- The Sixers have lost eight straight to the Grizzlies.

- The Grizzlies are 10-0 in games decided by five points or less or have reached overtime.

- The Sixers are 1-6 in games Embiid has sat out this season.

Baylor hires Temple's Matt Rhule as next head coach

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Baylor hires Temple's Matt Rhule as next head coach

Just when it hit its peak, the Matt Rhule era at Temple is over.

Rhule has accepted the open job at Baylor, a Big 12 school. The news was first reported by Fox Sports and was confirmed by Baylor football’s official Twitter account.

Rhule, who became the head coach of the Owls in 2012 after Steve Addazio left for Boston College, left an indelible mark on a downtrodden program with a 28-23 record in four seasons. While that may not look like a spectacular record, it's a remarkable job for a program that was a mere board of directors vote or two away from extinction just over a decade ago. Temple is 20-7 over the past two seasons, the best two-season mark in school history. Rhule's 28 wins tie him with Bruce Arians for sixth most in school history.

Rhule spent parts of 10 seasons at Temple as he filled various roles on the coaching staffs of both Al Golden and Addazio. He left in 2011 for a role on Tom Coughlin's staff with the New York Giants before coming back to North Broad Street.

"I am truly honored and humbled to join the Baylor Family," Rhule said in a press release sent by Baylor Tuesday afternoon. "I can't thank President (David) Garland and (athletic director) Mack Rhoades enough for this incredible opportunity. Baylor is a tremendous institution with a history of football success and I know the passion that so many have for the Bears will help bring the community together to reach even greater heights. I am excited to get started."

Tuesday's news comes just three days after Rhule lead the Owls to victory over No. 19 Navy in the AAC title game. It was the program's first conference title since 1967 and just the second in school history.

Though the Owls missed out on the Cotton Bowl at-large berth that went to undefeated Western Michigan, they are set to face Wake Forest in the Military Bowl on Dec. 27 in Annapolis, Maryland.

Baylor has been mired in controversy in recent years as sexual assault scandals have rocked the program and ultimately cost head coach Art Briles his job.

Baylor went 6-6 this season.

According to a report by ESPN's Matt Fortuna, tight ends coach Ed Foley will be the Owls' interim head coach.

Temple has set a 1:30 p.m. press conference on Tuesday to discuss today's news.