LAKEWOOD, N.J. -- Sporting a baby blue Lakewood jersey top and a pair of Phillies-red cleats brighter than the maroon of his BlueClaw teammates, Ryan Howard came up to the plate with the chance to produce a walkoff hit in his first official minor-league rehab game Thursday night.
Lakewood was down two runs with the bases loaded and one out, and Howard had worked a 3-1 count. He took a mighty hack that produced the sound Phillies fans have heard hundreds of times since 2004 and the FirstEnergy Park crowd of 8,000 erupted.
But it didnt have the distance. What looked like a potential walkoff grand slam was instead a deep sacrifice fly to left-center. Whatever. It got the job done, and thats all Howard wanted with hot-hitting first baseman Chris Duffy on deck. Duffy, who hit a towering homer in his previous at-bat, promptly won the game with a two-run single. Lakewood, once down 6-0, came all the way back to win 7-6. Howard and Duffy drove in all seven runs.
My focus was to get one run home and let Big Duff take care of the rest, Howard said. I told him before he even went up there, I said, Hey, be ready to win this game, man. I just went up there and did my thing, and he came through.
Howard, who will play first base on Friday, sure did his thing in the first competitive game hes played since last October. He went 2-for-4 with three RBIs as Lakewoods designated hitter, and on several occasions was forced to go full-speed on the basepaths.
One such instance came after Howards first hit. Duffy hit a ball to deep right that barely stayed in the yard, and Howard was forced to scamper back to first base to avoid being doubled up. He did so successfully.
The ball Duff hit to the wall, where I went down to second and had to get back to first felt really good, to be able to run back pretty quick, slide, pop-up slide. It felt good. The running portion was the biggest thing and I felt pretty good. I didnt really think about it, adrenaline kicked in.
In Howards third at-bat, he legged out an infield single. The shortstop for the West Virginia Power dove to stop Howards sharp grounder, but couldnt beat him to the bag. Two runs scored.
I was able to turn it up and put some pressure on em, Howard said of the play, with a smile.
Thursday marked the first time in Howards eight-month long rehab process that he ran the bases in a competitive situation. He did some mock base running with Laynce Nix (calf injury) in simulated games in Clearwater, but Howard didnt actually make full use of his spikes until his first at-bat with the BlueClaws.
Even with all the running, Howard wasnt sore after the win, he said. And he is past the point of fearing a setback from the Achilles rupture he suffered in the final at-bat of the Phillies 2011 season.
Im not worried about my Achilles at all, Howard said. Its just getting back into game situations and flow of the game, offense and defense.
Howards timing at the plate was a little quick, he said. He smacked a hard-hit grounder just to the left of the second base bag in each of his first three trips to the dish. The first was an out. The second and third were hits.
My approach was exactly what I wanted to do, said Howard. Just try to stay up the middle. The first ball I kind of got around a little bit, slightly to the right side. But my approach was right what I wanted to do -- keep the ball back up the middle.
Howard wouldnt put a percentage on how he feels or offer a timetable for when hell return to the Phillies, but his ability to do so many different things well on Thursday night, and the front offices decision to allow him to play the field on Friday are both very positive signs.
But at the same time, the Phillies 125-million man isnt interested in rushing himself. Not after how long its taken for him to get back to this point.
Ive been patient for what is this, eight or nine months now? Another week, two weeks isnt going to kill me, Howard said. You want to be back up there as soon as you can, but at the same time, you have to take the proper precautions. Im not going to rush myself back up there just for the sake of getting back up there. Im going to make sure Im good and ready to go.
E-mail Corey Seidman at email@example.com