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?

NFL Notes: Jets' offer to QB Ryan Fitzpatrick stands at 3 years

052716_wentz_slide.jpg

NFL Notes: Jets' offer to QB Ryan Fitzpatrick stands at 3 years

NEW YORK -- A person familiar with the negotiations says the New York Jets made a three-year offer to quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in March that includes $12 million guaranteed in the first year.

That offer has remained on the table for Fitzpatrick, according to the person who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because neither side is commenting publicly on the negotiations.

The New York Post first reported the terms of the offer Friday.

Fitzpatrick and the Jets have been locked in a contract stalemate. The 33-year-old quarterback is a free agent and coming off a season in which he threw a Jets-record 31 touchdown passes and led New York within a victory of the playoffs.

Both the Jets and Fitzpatrick have said they would like a reunion, but have unable to agree on a deal.

Bears: First-round pick Leonard Floyd agrees to deal
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears and first-round draft pick Leonard Floyd have agreed to a four-year contract with an option for a fifth year.

The Bears drafted the outside linebacker from Georgia with the ninth pick after trading up two spots in a deal with Tampa Bay. Chicago hopes he will add some athleticism to a team trying to build on a 6-10 season. The 6-foot-6, 244-pound Floyd led the Bulldogs in sacks for the third straight year with 4 , and tied for the team lead with 10 1/2 tackles for loss last season.

With the announcement Friday, the Bears have agreed to contracts with eight of their nine picks. Defensive end Jonathan Bullard, a third-rounder, is the exception.

NFL: Navy's Reynolds, Carter can defer military service
ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Keenan Reynolds will get his chance to play in the NFL this season.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced Friday that the record-setting Navy quarterback Reynolds and fullback Chris Swain can defer their military service to play in the NFL.

Carter made the announcement during his graduation speech to the academy in Annapolis. As students cheered the news about their graduating classmates, Carter said: "Go get 'em."

Reynolds was drafted in the sixth round by the Baltimore Ravens. He is the NCAA's career leader in touchdowns with 88. He had 31 touchdown passes while leading Navy's triple-option offense. The Ravens plan to use him as a running back, receiver and kick returner.

Swain has signed with the San Diego Chargers (see full story).

Redskins: Activists criticize poll on team name
WASHINGTON -- Native American leaders and activists have criticized a recent US national poll that found nine of 10 Native Americans aren't offended by the Washington Redskins' name.

On a conference call held Friday by the National Congress of American Indians and "Change the Mascot" campaign, panelists voiced opposition to a Washington Post poll that surveyed 504 Native Americans, 90 percent of whom said the name doesn't bother them.

James Fenelon, a California State San Bernardino sociology professor, called the poll "immoral," adding it was not representative of Native American communities. Amanda Blackhorse, lead plaintiff in the trademark case against the Redskins, said the "misguided" poll will not affect attempts to change the name.

National Congress of American Indians Executive Director Jackie Pata said: "This issue is not about polling. This issue is about human rights."

D.C. council member David Grosso said he hadn't been swayed and that the government would not support the team moving back into the District unless the name was changed.

The team currently plays its home games in Maryland, with its headquarters and training facility in Virginia.

Best of MLB: Mets spoil Urias' debut, get walk-off win over Dodgers

052716_mackanin_slide.jpg

Best of MLB: Mets spoil Urias' debut, get walk-off win over Dodgers

NEW YORK -- Curtis Granderson homered leading off the bottom of the ninth inning to give the New York Mets a 6-5 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday night.

Chase Utley, who was booed all night in his return to Citi Field, hit a tying three-run double off Jeurys Familia with two outs in a four-run ninth inning for the Dodgers.

New York took a 3-0 lead in the first against Julio Urias and chased the 19-year-old after 2 2/3 innings in his major league debut.

But in a non-save situation, Familia (2-0) failed to hold a 5-1 lead.

New York moved back into the NL East lead, by percentage points over Washington, giving Mets manager Terry Collins a happy 67th birthday. New York won for the sixth time in seven games, stopping the Dodgers' four-game winning streak (see full recap).

A-Rod, Tanaka lead Yanks to win over Rays
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Alex Rodriguez homered for the first time since coming off the disabled list, Masahiro Tanaka pitched seven shutout innings and the New York Yankees beat the Tampa Bay Rays 4-1 on Friday night.

Rodriguez returned Thursday after missing three weeks with a strained right hamstring. His sixth homer of the season and 693rd overall off Chris Archer came during a three-run sixth.

Tanaka (3-0) scattered two hits and struck out four to run his career-best unbeaten streak to 11 consecutive starts, dating to last season.

Andrew Miller gave up a single and hit a batter during a scoreless eighth. Kirby Yates allowed Steve Pearce's two-out solo homer in the ninth before Aroldis Chapman got the final out.

Carlos Beltran homered in the eighth for the Yankees.

Archer (3-6) allowed four runs -- one earned -- and four hits in eight innings for the Rays, who have lost six of seven (see full recap).

Donaldson HRs spark Blue Jays' victory
TORONTO -- Josh Donaldson hit two home runs and drove in five runs as the Toronto Blue Jays snapped a five-game home losing streak with a 7-5 win over the Boston Red Sox on Friday night.

The reigning AL MVP was 4 for 5, starting the scoring with a first-inning solo shot, and then providing the winning margin with a two-run drive, his 13th of the year in the eighth.

Justin Smoak added a solo shot in the fifth inning. Joe Biagini (2-1) got four outs and Roberto Osuna pitched the ninth for his 11th save.

Koji Uehara (2-2) worked the eighth inning for the Red Sox, allowing Ezequiel Carrera -- starting for the suspended Jose Bautista -- to reach on a bunt before surrendering the home run to Donaldson.

Boston's Xander Bogaerts was 1 for 4, extending his career-best hitting streak to 20 games, the longest active run in the majors (see full recap).

Cubs use three homers to beat Morgan and Phillies' feeble offense

052716_morgan_slide2.jpg

Cubs use three homers to beat Morgan and Phillies' feeble offense

BOX SCORE

CHICAGO – The Chicago Cubs were everything they were advertised to be on Friday afternoon/evening.
 
They pitched.
 
They hit.
 
And they looked like what they are – the best team in the majors – as they put a whoopin’ on Adam Morgan and a Phillies club that is slowly cooling after its hot start.
 
The Cubs rode three home runs to a 6-2 win over the Phils at Wrigley Field (see Instant Replay). It was the Phils’ third loss in four games on this road trip and fifth in the last seven games.

As if the loss wasn't enough, the Phillies' misery was stretched out by a pair of late-game rain delays that totaled 1 hour, 33 minutes.
 
Scoring runs continues to be a great challenge for the local nine, which entered the day averaging just 3.3 runs per game. The Phils have been held to two or fewer runs 16 times in their 48 games. For the season, they have been outscored by 35 runs.
 
The Phils are still over .500 at 26-22, but they might not be much longer if they don’t find some offense. They had 10 hits in the game, but only one for extra bases.
 
"We couldn't string anything together," manager Pete Mackanin lamented afterward.

Mackanin was asked if he was worried the offensive shortcomings were catching up with the team.
 
“I wouldn’t say I’m worried about it,” he said. “I’ve been conscious of it the whole season. We certainly would like to have more offense, a little bit more power.
 
“You look at the Cubs, you look at the Tigers, they’ve got power and home-run threats to do damage. We haven’t been able to do that. So, of course, I’m always concerned it might catch up with us, but as long as the pitching does its job we’re going to be in as many games as they allow us to be in.”
 
Starting pitching is a big reason the Phillies came into Wrigley Field five games over .500. It has kept them in games to the point where a big hit or big defensive play can win it.
 
But the starting pitching was not there in this game and that’s a problem when you’re facing the Cubs. They are a team has been built to break a 108-year World Series championship drought. They are averaging 5.7 runs per game, best in the National League, and have outscored their opponents by a whopping 123 runs. Their 32 wins are the most in the majors.
 
The Cubs pounded Morgan for six runs in four innings. He was tagged for eight hits and five were for extra bases, including three homers.
 
Morgan really struggled in the fourth inning. He gave up a mammoth 461-foot homer to Jorge Soler to lead off the frame. Four batters later, David Ross followed a walk and a single with a three-run home run to left and the Friday afternoon Happy Hour was on at Wrigley – at least until the skies opened in the seventh. Morgan gave up a third home run (to Kris Bryant) in the fifth.
 
“You try to be consistent and give your team a chance to win,” Morgan said. “When you put them in a hole like that it’s hard.”
 
Two of the homers Morgan allowed came on 1-2 counts. One was on a slider, the other a fastball. Neither put the hitter away, obviously. Poor location.
 
“Morgan didn’t have it today,” Mackanin said. “He really didn’t have command of any of his pitches. He struggled to make pitches when he needed to. You can overcome a solo home run, but that home run by Ross was the one that got us out of the game.”
 
In six starts, Morgan has an ERA of 6.67.
 
“He’s one good start, one bad start, one good start, one bad start. He's got to be more consistent,” Mackanin said. “At this level you have to be consistent to be successful. He’s capable of doing it. He just has to do it.”
 
Mackanin was asked whether Morgan’s spot in the rotation was in jeopardy. He did not give a direct answer.
 
“Nobody is solid in their spots,” the manager said. “Last year, I talked a lot about how you’re auditioning every day. At this level, consistency is the hallmark of a good major-league player. That includes pitchers.”