Motivated Howard eyes healthy, productive '14

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Motivated Howard eyes healthy, productive '14

ATLANTA -- Looking leaner and moving better than the last time he was seen on the field with his Phillies teammates, Ryan Howard joined the club for pregame workouts at Turner Field on Thursday.

Howard, who had season-ending knee surgery in July, took ground balls, batting practice and ran the bases. He will do so Friday, Saturday and Sunday before this woeful Phillies season comes to an end.

After dealing with two injury-plagued seasons and hearing the whispers -- shouts in some quarters -- that his best days are behind him, Howard says he has something to prove in 2014.

“That I’m healthy, No. 1,” he said. “And that I’m capable of doing the things I can do.

“I’m focused on getting this team and this organization back to where we belong, and that’s on top.”

Howard, who turns 34 in November, has spent the last couple of months rehabbing in Clearwater. He recently began playing in games in the Florida Instructional League. He requested to join the big club for the final series of the season in Atlanta and team officials were all for it.

“I just wanted to be here, end the season with the fellas,” he said. “I know it’s been a hard year for us as an organization, for us as a team, for myself personally. I just wanted to be here with them, be able to ride it out and just kind of watch, cheer them on the rest of the way and hopefully end things on a good note and head into 2014 on a high.”

Howard averaged 670 plate appearances from 2006 to 2011. He had just 654 total plate appearances in 2012 and 2013 as he dealt with injuries to his left Achilles and knee.

Howard’s production slipped with his health.

“It’s my back foot, my pivot foot, my power foot,” he said of his left side. “Not being able to sit back on it as much as I want in my stance -- pivoting on it, moving on it. I would say, yeah, it definitely played a factor.

“It’s not what you sign up for. It’s the unfortunate side of the game where sometimes injuries happen, freak things happen. For me, it’s just about getting 100 percent healthy, getting back to where I know I can be, how I know I can play. I’ll put all my focus on that this offseason and come out ready for 2014.”

The leg injuries prevented Howard from getting in top physical condition the last two seasons, and that affected his play.

New manager Ryne Sandberg is stressing conditioning with the whole team. He has mentioned a number of times that, while he understands why Howard wasn’t in top shape the last two seasons, he wants him to reach that point in 2014.

Howard said he was about 260 pounds before the surgery in July. He said he was about 248 Thursday. He looked trimmer, but stronger. He’s been working in the weight room in Clearwater. Howard said he will spend some time in Philadelphia the next few weeks then return to Florida in mid to late October. He will stay on a fitness program regardless of where he is. He will start hitting and doing baseball work in December.

“Obviously, when you can’t use your legs, it’s tough to do cardio,” Howard said. “The goal is to have my legs this offseason and do the cardio and everything that I need to do -- work on speed and agility. My goal is to come back and be as efficient as I can be for 2014, in all aspects.”

Howard's goal is to play in 162 games next season. That won't happen. Sandberg will get him days off. Still, Sandberg hopes that Howard produces to the point where it's difficult to give him a day off.

Howard played in 80 games this season and hit .266 with 11 homers and 43 RBIs. He struck out 95 times in 286 at-bats. Against lefties, Howard hit just .173 (14 for 81).

Sandberg has questioned Howard’s game preparation. The manager said he would like to see Howard look at more video of opposing pitchers.

“There are some times when I go in and look at video," Howard said. "I understand it, and I think it’s something I will try more to incorporate next year. Before it was one of those things where if I felt good, I didn’t feel like I needed to look at video. But I think it is something I’ll incorporate more next year.”

Howard is owed $85 million the next three seasons. That makes him virtually untradeable. He is aware that some have written him off, and he said he draws motivation from that.

“Sure,” he said. “I think it drives people. I think a lot of guys say they don’t listen to it -- and you try not to -- but, you know, it trickles in. You become motivated, a little fired up as far as that is concerned. But the main focus is for me to be fired up for myself, wanting to prove it to my teammates more than someone else.

“I’ve seen the stuff. I’ve seen stuff in the offseason when we didn’t make the playoffs. All you can do is go out there the next year and put your best foot forward -- play for yourself, play for your teammates, your organization, your fans. Just put all that to rest by doing it on the field.”

An appreciation: Dallas Green, a great baseball man (1934-2017)

An appreciation: Dallas Green, a great baseball man (1934-2017)

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Spring training hasn't been the same this year.

You can see the difference.

You can hear it.

Dallas Green didn't make it to camp this year, and it just wasn't the same.

We missed his hulking presence ambling across the fields of Carpenter Complex during early workouts. We missed seeing him on the rooftop, under a big, straw hat, evaluating young prospects just like he had for decades.

We missed the booming, bellowing voice, the one that once lit up some of the best players in Phillies history and acted as the cattle prod that transformed them from underachievers to champions back in 1980.

The Phillies, the baseball world, the Philadelphia sporting community -- shoot, all of us -- lost a great one today when Big D lost his courageous battle with kidney disease.

He was 82.

And he was one of a kind, from the thick shock of white hair on top his head to those huge, rough hands, to that imposing 6-foot-5 inch frame, to the booming voice, to the demeanor and personality that could one minute be in-your-face and confrontational and the next soothing and gentle.

. . .

A local guy, Green came out of the University of Delaware and was destined to be a great pitcher before he hurt his arm in the days when surgery couldn't yet fix those things. He pitched six seasons with the Phillies, lived through the '64 collapse, and when his playing career ended stayed in the organization as a member of the player-development staff.

It was in this role that Green helped develop that great core of players that arrived at Veterans Stadium in the 1970s and blossomed into the organization's first World Series championship team in 1980.

From Schmidt and Carlton to Bowa, Maddox, Luzinski and Boone, the Phils had a great collection of talent in those days. But they were too often the bridesmaid and never had their day in the sun.

Late in the 1979 season, general manager Paul Owens began to worry that the clock was ticking on this collection of talent. Those Phillies were just a little too country club, he believed, to get over the hump. Owens decided they needed some old-school toughness, so he summoned Green from his player-development role and installed him as manager.

Green immediately took some sandpaper to those shiny, big egos.

And if they didn't like it, too bad.

Predictably, they hated him at first.

Hated him.

Green thought nothing of ripping a player face to face, or in the newspaper, if he sensed they needed it.

And the players thought nothing of ripping him back.

But on the night Tug McGraw threw that pitch past Willie Wilson at the Vet, they all loved him.

Larry Bowa, who had been a vocal critic of Green during that season, approached the skipper in the joyous clubhouse after the final game. With tears in his eyes and a champagne bottle in his hand, Bowa hugged Green.

"We couldn't have done it without you," the shortstop told the manager.

. . .

Controversy followed Green. That tends to happen to those who are loud, opinionated and prone to speak their mind. A few years after spraying champagne and hugging Paul Owens in the winning clubhouse -- what an awesome picture that is! -- Green got sideways with a new Phillies management group. He moved on to run the Chicago Cubs and in the process pulled one over on his old team and managed to take an infielder named Ryne Sandberg with him. Sandberg, a throw-in in the trade, blossomed into a Hall of Famer.

Eventually Green moved on from Chicago. He managed the Yankees and the Mets and never took an ounce of crap from anyone along the way.

But he was always a Phillie. In fact, 46 of his 62 years in pro ball were with the Phils.

He ended up back with the club in 1998 as a front office adviser. He remained outspoken, clashing with Scott Rolen and Charlie Manuel. But one of the things about Dallas was that he spoke his mind, said what he had to say, and the next day it was over. After he and Manuel had clashed over Manuel's managing style, the two men talked out their differences. Green admitted that he was wrong, that he saw the merits of Manuel's managerial style, and a wonderful friendship developed between the only two men to lead the Phillies to a World Series championship.

Green was never afraid to show his emotions and we saw a lot of them over the years, some we wished we never had to see.

All of our hearts bled for him and his family in January 2011 when his precious, little granddaughter, 9-year-old Christina, was killed in the shooting that seriously injured Congresswoman Gabriella Giffords in Tucson, Arizona.

Five weeks later, Dallas was on the field at Carpenter Complex for the first day of spring training. I recall pitcher J.C. Romero breaking free from a drill, sprinting over to Dallas and saying, "Mr. Green, I'm so sorry." A couple of days later, Dallas decided that he would talk about the tragedy and how his family was doing. I remember a couple of reporters from New York, guys that Dallas had locked horns with over the years, showed up because they wanted to pay their respects to the great baseball man. On that day, with tears welling in his eyes, Dallas talked about his precious, little granddaughter. Coming to spring training helped, he said, because, "I don't see a little girl with a hole in her chest."

. . .

It was clear that Dallas wasn't doing well last spring training. He was in Clearwater, but going to dialysis three days a week. He talked about the possibility of getting a kidney transplant. But he didn't want any sympathy. He just wanted to feel better and help out around the team that he loved so much.

But you knew he wasn't right. He wasn't at the ballpark much last season. I remember calling him late last summer and getting a little worried because the booming voice was soft and hushed. But I also remember the Thursday before Thanksgiving. It was crazy warm that day. I called Dallas and was thrilled to hear the old boom back in his voice. I told him I wanted to come by for a visit.

"Bring your dog," he barked.

I pulled up to his home and immediately noticed a peacock roaming the property. Needless to say, Hazel stayed in the truck. I didn't want to feel the wrath of Big D if something went wrong.

For the next hour, I sat with Dallas in his big, old farmhouse. We talked about a lot of things, but mostly baseball, the rise of the '80 team, the clashes, the triumphs, working for George Steinbrenner. Dallas was feeling good that day and was especially enthused because Andy MacPhail, the Phillies club president, had called the day before to make sure he'd be in spring training.

"I'm tickled you came down," Dallas said as I left that day. "See you in Clearwater."

Well, Big D, it was me that was tickled that day. It was magic talking to you, magic knowing you. You were missed in Clearwater this year. And you'll never be forgotten. By anyone. You were one of a kind, a great baseball man and a Phillies legend.

Team USA edges Japan to reach World Baseball Classic title game

Team USA edges Japan to reach World Baseball Classic title game

LOS ANGELES -- Brandon Crawford scored the tiebreaking run when Nobuhiro Matsuda bobbled Adam Jones' grounder to third in the eighth inning, and the United States reached the championship game of the World Baseball Classic for the first time by beating Japan 2-1 on Tuesday night at rainy Dodger Stadium.

Andrew McCutchen drove in an early run for the U.S., which will play Puerto Rico for the title Wednesday night. Puerto Rico beat the Netherlands 4-3 in 11 innings Monday.

The World Baseball Classic final has been played in the United States in each of its four editions, but the home team had never made it.

The Americans only reached the semifinals once before, in 2009. But this All-Star-laden roster has won two straight elimination games to earn the chance for its first crown.

Ryosuke Kikuchi hit a tying homer off reliever Nate Jones in the sixth inning for Japan, but the two-time WBC champions were twice let down by their normally sturdy defense on a rain-soaked night at Chavez Ravine, where an intermittent downpour kept fans in ponchos.

McCutchen opened the scoring with an RBI single in the fourth inning moments after Kikuchi's two-base error at second. In the eighth, Crawford likely would have been out at the plate on Jones' innocent grounder, but Matsuda didn't field it cleanly and had to throw to first.

Japan, unbeaten coming into the game, won the first two WBC tournaments before losing in the semifinals in 2013.

Tanner Roark pitched four scoreless innings of two-hit ball before U.S. manager Jim Leyland went to his bullpen early and liberally. His sixth reliever, Luke Gregerson, pitched a perfect ninth inning after Pat Neshek escaped a two-on jam in the eighth.

Although the crowd of 33,462 strongly favored the team with five California natives in the starting lineup, thousands of Japanese fans showed up early and chanted throughout the game, accompanied by the brass band in the left-field bleachers.

A light, misting rain started falling several hours before game time, forcing the teams to take batting practice indoors while a tarp covered the infield. The wet weather, unusual for Los Angeles, eventually soaked the playing field and forced grounds crews to tend to the infield dirt between innings.

But the WBC couldn't really afford a rainout day, given its tight schedule in the final weeks of big league spring training.

Leyland kept a lineup with eight All-Stars, making only one change from the team that beat the Dominican Republic on Saturday to avoid elimination. Buster Posey was behind the plate, continuing his alternation with Jonathan Lucroy, apparently in accordance with their major league teams' wishes.

Tomoyuki Sugano, the Yomiuri Giants ace with a seven-pitch repertoire, tossed six innings of three-hit ball for Japan, striking out six and yielding only one unearned run.

"He's a big league pitcher," Leyland said before the game.

But Sugano was matched by Roark, who had given up three runs over 1 1/3 innings in his only previous WBC appearance. The Washington Nationals right-hander was largely outstanding against Japan, giving up just two singles and a walk and hitting a batter with a pitch. After Christian Yelich reached second in the fourth inning when his hard-hit grounder was mishandled by Kikuchi, the standout defensive second baseman, Eric Hosmer worked out of an 0-2 count to draw a two-out walk.

McCutchen had just two hits in his first 14 at-bats in the WBC, but he drove in Yelich with a sharp single to left.

Kikuchi atoned for his mistake in the sixth, driving Jones' fastball barely over the reach of McCutchen in right field for his first homer of the tournament.

Japan reliever Kodai Senga struck out the first four batters he faced with a 96 mph fastball and exceptional off-speed stuff, but Crawford then delivered a sharp single before Ian Kinsler doubled to deep left-center.

Neshek got cleanup hitter Yoshimoto Tsutsugoh on a fly to right to end the eighth.