Ryan Howard got to do pretty much everything that the Phillies are looking for him to do on a baseball field on Sunday. He had to scoop a couple of balls out of the dirt at first base, fielded a ground ball and made an unassisted putout, he picked up a hit, was hitting the ball the opposite way and tried to run out a groundball. Watching Howard run out the groundball was likely the most telling of everything that he did, since that's where he's pushing that repaired Achilles tendon. The end result of his dash to first was that he didn't show much speed - no shock there - but he did appear to be able to accelerate and didn't appear to have any noticeable limp or to be favoring that left Achilles.
Baseball-wise, it's always great to see Ryan Howard hitting the ball the other way. Even though he's a power hitter and is known best for long, majestic drives into the right field seats, his hottest runs at the plate have come when he's taking the ball the other way and/or right back up the middle. The defensive plays he made at first showed that there wasn't any rust accumulating in his glove and he appeared to be able to move much like the Ryan Howard of old.
That doesn't mean that there aren't still some issues for Howard to work out. The fact that he is swinging the bat well and he's able to do things in a way that make him look healthy, you can't be fooled into a false sense of security. For instance, some of the things that Howard has yet to conquer are playing defensively on back-to-back days and then doing the same thing, but playing both games for nine innings. On Sunday, he played five innings and then turned to being a spectator. He has yet to play even just nine full innings at first, let alone doing it on back-to-back days, but it is likely that he will play nine innings at first as early as Wednesday as his rehab stint with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs continues. When he'll get to the back-to-back scenario still hasn't been determined.
Howard is now four days into his rehab assignment, meaning that he has a maximum of sixteen days left until he would have to either be activated or end the assignment. The early returns are good. "The biggest thing was just how it would hold up after playing a few games or, pretty much, playing everyday. So far, it's held up pretty good," reported Howard. "There's been a little stiffness, which is to be expected, early in the morning, but it doesn't take long for that to break up. As soon as I get up and start walking around it loosens up and then everything is good."
Ever since he started working his way back to full baseball activities, Howard hasn't felt any apprehension or had any fears that he would aggravate the injury. The concerns that both he and the training staff have had were how he would feel the day after working out or playing and how quickly he could add more activities to his routine. It turned out that Howard responded well and the Phillies were able to move him along at a good rate. "It was more just about how it would hold up the next day. I know we did everything we could do or could possibly do to get it to the position where it is now where it can hold up. Everything I was doing in Clearwater was where the easy part was going out and playing the games. It's good to be out there and running the bases and getting more confident with it everyday."
While a lot of fans have been bemoaning the fact that Howard and teammate Chase Utley have missed so much time this season, the Phillies have stayed on a cautious course in rehabbing the two former all-stars. The emphasis has been on making sure that neither player aggravates their situation. To their credit, both Utley and Howard have remained patient even when it hasn't been easy for them. Howard's timetable has been somewhat fluid, but the hope right now is that he's going to be back shortly prior to the end of his 20-day rehab assignment.
"I would love to be back maybe right after the all-star break or maybe right before the all-star break, you never know," said Howard. "It all depends on how it feels and how quickly I can get back into the flow of the game."
Howard also won't let the situation in Philadelphia dictate when he returns to the majors and doesn't feel any pressure to rush his rehab for the sake of getting back a few days earlier than he's planning to. "I'm sure everybody wants me to be back up there ASAP, but I've got to make sure that I'm right first and can go out there and help the team."
Howard will DH for Lehigh Valley on Monday and likely play first base on Tuesday. There's no word on how many innings he'll play defensively at first base or when he'll stretch it out to playing a full nine innings. There is also no mention of when he may play in back-to-back games at first, but the clock is ticking on his rehab assignment and Howard and the Phillies are taking things day-to-day and both report that Howard is on schedule to return as soon as physically possible.