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?

Best of NFL: Matthew Stafford's late TD pass leads Lions past Redskins

Best of NFL: Matthew Stafford's late TD pass leads Lions past Redskins

DETROIT -- Matthew Stafford threw a go-ahead, 18-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin with 16 seconds left.

The Lions (4-3) extended their winning streak to three games. The Redskins (4-3) had won four straight.

Stafford, who set up game-winning kicks in the previous two games, led his team to another win in the 100th game of his career. He was 18 of 29 for 266 yards, one TD and no turnovers.

Kirk Cousins scored a go-ahead TD on a 19-yard run with 1:05 left (see full recap).

4 interceptions power Giants past Rams in London
LONDON -- The Giants capitalized on four interceptions of Case Keenum in the first NFL game played at London's home of English rugby, a sold-out and raucous Twickenham Stadium.

Keenum, coming off the best start of his career, had the Rams at the Giants' 15-yard line with 50 seconds left when he lobbed a pass in the left corner of the end zone that Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie easily picked off. Keenum's intended target, Brian Quick, failed to get the quarterback's audible and cut off his route early.

Keenum, who finished 32 of 53 for 291 yards and one touchdown, has thrown an interception on the Rams' final offensive play of the last three games. That likely will fuel debate on a potential quarterback change to overall No. 1 draft pick Jared Goff.

Landon Collins returned his first of two picks 44 yards for a second-quarter touchdown, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie also had two interceptions (see full recap).

Seahawks, Cardinals play to ugly 6-6 tie
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Seattle's Stephen Hauschka and Arizona's Chandler Catanzaro missed short field goals that would have won it in overtime and the Seahawks and Cardinals tied 6-6 on Sunday night.

Hauschka's 27-yard field goal was wide left with seven seconds left after Catanzaro's 24-yarder bounced off the left upright.

The last tie in the NFL came in 2014, when Carolina and Cincinnati tied 37-37. The tie was the Cardinals' first since Dec. 7, 1986, a 10-10 draw at Philadelphia when the franchise was based in St. Louis. It was the first for the Seattle since entering the NFL in 1976.

The Cardinals (3-3-1) dominated the game statistically and looked to be in shape to win it after Carson Palmer's 40-yard pass to J.J. Nelson set up Catanzaro's short kick.

The Seahawks (4-1-1), stuffed throughout regulation by the Arizona defense, took over and Russell Wilson completed passes of 31 yards to Jermaine Kearse and 27 yards to Doug Baldwin to give Houschka his short attempt. Both kickers made field goals on their teams' first possession of overtime.

Catanzaro, who kicked field goals of 46 and 45 yards, also had a 39-yard field goal blocked by a stunning play by Bobby Wagner when he hurdled Arizona long snapper Aaron Brewer.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians argued loudly for a penalty and was charged with a timeout when he challenged a play that is not reviewable. That proved significant when the Cardinals couldn't stop the clock to get off a short field goal attempt as the first half ended (see full recap).

Fitzpatrick relieves Smith, propels Jets to comeback win over Ravens
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.  -- Ryan Fitzpatrick replaced an injured Geno Smith and led the Jets on three scoring drives, and a rejuvenated defense came up with two rare interceptions.

Fitzpatrick came in for Smith in the second quarter and led the Jets on a go-ahead drive capped by a 13-yard touchdown catch by Matt Forte. Fitzpatrick finished 9 of 14 for 120 yards and a touchdown as the Jets (2-5) snapped a four-game losing streak.

Smith injured his right knee while taking a sack from Baltimore's Matthew Judon. Fitzpatrick was efficient after losing his job earlier in the week.

Joe Flacco started for Baltimore (3-4), loser of four in a row, after being questionable with a sore shoulder. He went a team-record 176 consecutive throws without an interception before Buster Skrine picked off his pass in the third quarter (see full recap).

Ajayi rushes for 200 yards in second straight game as Dolphins top  Bills
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Jay Ajayi tied an NFL record by surpassing 200 yards rushing for the second game in a row. Ajayi rushed for 214 yards in 29 carries after totaling 204 yards a week earlier in a win over Pittsburgh. He scored on a 4-yard run, and busted a 53-yarder when the Dolphins were pinned at their 3 and trailing in the fourth quarter.

The Dolphins (3-4) used an extra lineman much of the time to clear big holes for Ajayi, who tied the NFL record for consecutive 200-yard games held by O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams.

Miami overcame an 11-point deficit with 16 minutes left to end a four-game winning streak by the Bills (4-3) and beat them for only the second time in their past seven meetings.

Buffalo RB LeSean McCoy, ranked second in the NFL in rushing, started, but totaled only 11 yards in eight carries before departing with a hamstring problem (see full recap).

Luck improves to 8-0 vs. Titans in Colts' 34-26 win
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Andrew Luck threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Jack Doyle with 1:55 left to put Indianapolis ahead to stay, and the Colts rallied to beat the Titans for their 10th straight win against their AFC South rival.

The Colts (3-4) came in having lost two of three, including blowing a 14-point lead in an overtime loss last week at Houston. But Luck he improved to 8-0 against the Titans with yet another comeback win. He finished with 353 yards passing and three TDs, the last after Tennessee went up 23-20.

T.Y. Hilton caught seven passes for 133 yards, including a 37-yard TD. The Colts shook off 12 penalties for 131 yards in pulling out their 15th win in 16 games against Tennessee.

The Titans (3-4) saw their two-game winning string end.

Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri kicked a pair of field goals, and the second, a 33-yarder with 3:46 left in the third quarter gave him an NFL record 43 consecutive field goals made (see full recap).

Patriots prove to be too much for Roethlisberger-less Steelers
PITTSBURGH -- LeGarrette Blount ran for 127 yards and two scores while Tom Brady completed 19 of 26 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns.

Steelers quarterback Landry Jones played capably while filling in for Roethlisberger, who watched from the sideline after undergoing left knee surgery last week.

Making his third career start, Jones threw for 281 yards with a touchdown and an interception. But undermanned Pittsburgh (4-3) lost its second straight when its defense failed to keep Brady under wraps.

New England (6-1) remained perfect since Brady returned from his four-game "Deflategate" suspension, emphatically responding to a push by the Steelers with a pair of second-half touchdowns. Brady improved to 9-2 against the Steelers, throwing for 26 touchdowns and three interceptions (see full recap).

Chargers rally from 17 down to earn OT win over Falcons
ATLANTA -- Josh Lambo's 42-yard field goal in overtime gave San Diego its first road win of the year as the Chargers rallied from a 17-point deficit.

The Chargers (3-4) trailed 27-10 in the second quarter. They had lost 11 of their past 12 road games.

Linebacker Denzel Perryman delivered two key plays late in the game. Perryman's interception of Matt Ryan's pass for Julio Jones set up Lambo's tying 33-yard field goal with 18 seconds remaining in regulation.

Perryman's fourth-and-1 stop on running back Devonta Freeman gave San Diego the ball at Atlanta's 43 for the Chargers' winning drive. Perryman grabbed Freeman's feet behind the line for the key tackle on the Falcons' gamble (see full recap).

Best of NHL: Oilers blank Jets to win outdoor Heritage Classic

Best of NHL: Oilers blank Jets to win outdoor Heritage Classic

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- Cam Talbot made 31 saves and Mark Letestu scored the first of three second-period goals, lifting the Edmonton Oilers over the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday in an outdoor game delayed almost two hours by sunlight melting the ice.

The Heritage Classic victory extended Edmonton's winning streak to three in front of 33,240 at Investors Group Field. Fans wore both Jets and Oilers jerseys to the league's 19th outdoor game.

Zack Kassian had a goal and an assist and Darnell Nurse also scored for Edmonton.

Connor Hellebuyck, who had a tuque attached to his helmet, stopped 29 shots for Winnipeg.

The NHL said the start of the Heritage Classic game was delayed "due to intermittent sunlight on the playing surface" and "in the interest of player safety." (see full recap)

Girardi leads Rangers past Coyotes
NEW YORK -- Dan Girardi scored 1:55 into the third period and New York beat Arizona.

Josh Jooris and J.T. Miller also scored for New York, which has won consecutive games to improve to 4-2-0. Henrik Lundqvist made 27 stops.

Radim Vrbata had both of Arizona's goals, and Louis Domingue made 23 saves. The Coyotes have lost their first four games on a six-game trip since beating Philadelphia in overtime at home to start the season.

Girardi put the Rangers ahead with a slap shot from the right point. The veteran was paired with rookie Brady Skjei in his first game after missing New York's previous three with a strained groin, and Skjei assisted on the goal (see full recap).

Tavares' big night helps Isles defeat Wild
NEW YORK -- John Tavares had two goals and an assist, Johnny Boychuk scored for the second straight game and New York beat Minnesota.

Calvin de Haan, Alan Quine and Thomas Hickey also scored to help New York get its highest scoring total of the year and win for the third time in four home games after opening with two road losses. Thomas Greiss stopped 26 shots for his first win in two starts this season.

Islanders rookie Anthony Beauvillier had two assists, giving the 19-year-old at least a point in three straight games.

Zach Parise scored twice for Minnesota to top 300 goals for his career, and Nino Niederreiter also scored. Second-string goalie Darcy Kuemper made 27 saves (see full recap).

Ducks hand Canucks 1st regulation loss
ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) -- Nick Ritchie scored the tiebreaking goal on a rebound with 8:36 to play, captain Ryan Getzlaf had three assists and Anaheim finally opened its home schedule with a victory over Vancouver.

Andrew Cogliano, Cam Fowler and Corey Perry also scored for the Ducks, who have won two straight after a four-game winless start. John Gibson made 17 saves in the Western Conference's final home opener, thanks to a schedule that forced Anaheim to play in five teams' home debuts this month.

Henrik Sedin scored the tying goal early in the third period for the Canucks, who lost in regulation for the first time this season. Bo Horvat scored a short-handed goal, and Loui Eriksson had two assists (see full recap).