Inside Pitch: Howard Pressing At The Plate

Perhaps the most noticeable problem on the stat sheet for the Phillies after their 2-6 start was Ryan Howard's RBI total: 1. And that came on a so-what solo home run in the Cardinals' rout on Opening Day. The good news is that the Phillies rebounded Wednesday night in Atlanta for a 7-5 win over Atlanta.

To be fair to Ryan Howard, it's not as if he has been loaded with opportunities - only six of his 31 plate appearances this season have come with a runner on second or third base. However, in those six plate appearances he has one walk, two strikeouts, no hits and no RBI.

That's a far cry from the guy who had the second-most home runs after the All-Star break last season and was the spring training leader in longballs last month.

Charlie Manuel has batted Howard in the number six spot of the order in each of his seven starts, including Wednesday night. That means Howard has David Bell and his .190 average hitting behind him - a presence that isn't going to motivate many pitchers to challenge Howard. That was clear in the Phillies' 4-3 loss to the Cardinals on April 5 when, in the bottom of the ninth with the tying run on second base, closer Jason Isringhausen threw three straight pitches way out of the strike zone to Howard. Howard took a 3-0 hack that missed, then accepted the walk.

"Against St. Louis, they started him with two breaking balls that were way outside, and that told me that they weren't going to give him a fastball to hit," Manuel said. "I gave him the take sign (when the count was 3-0), but he didn't see it."

While Manuel isn't opposed to moving up Howard in the batting order, he first would like to see more plate discipline from him.

"If you're patient, you'll get pitches to hit," Manuel said. "He has been chasing some bad balls. It's about being focused on what you're doing. You want to get a good ball to hit."

Howard had three walks in 27 plate appearances entering Wednesday. You get the feeling that Manuel would like to see that number increase.

"He's been overly anxious," Manuel said. "That's going to allow pitchers to do what they want with him."

Even if moving Howard up in the order is considered, figuring out who bats sixth isn't easy. Manuel did flip-flop Pat Burrell and Chase Utley in the number four and five spots the past two games. Because Burrell has been slowed on the bases by a sore foot, Manuel would like to keep Howard behind the left fielder, who doesn't hit many double-play grounders (he hit into six in 348 plate appearances last season). Manuel also feels strongly about Bobby Abreu remaining in the number three hole, which probably leaves switching Utley and Howard as the lone option. Of course, that means Utley, who drove in 105 runs last season, would be pitched carefully in the number six spot.

REPLAY: The Phillies scored four runs in the second inning Wednesday, then got a two-run homer from Aaron Rowand and a solo shot from Pat Burrell in the seventh that helped hold off a Braves rally and give the Phils a 7-5 win.

Mike Lieberthal helped the offense snap out of a funk with runners in scoring position with a two-out, two-run double in the second. Starting pitcher Cory Lidle wasn't at his best, but he was able to minimize the damage and gave the Phillies a quality start (six innings, three runs). Closer Tom Gordon finally got an opportunity to do his job and responded with a 1-2-3 ninth to get his first save as a Phillie.


  • Jimmy Rollins extended his latest hitting streak to five games when he caught Braves RHP Jorge Sosa napping when he was supposed to cover first base on Rollins' second-inning grounder that was stopped by a diving Adam LaRoche. Rollins beat the toss for an infield single and got another hit in the seventh inning to raise his average to .394.
  • Aaron Rowand gave the Phils a sampling of what he can do at the plate and in the field Wednesday. His two-run homer in the seventh inning gave the Phils needed insurance runs, and in the bottom of the second his relay throw to Jimmy Rollins led to a runner being cut down at the plate to end the inning.
  • Chase Utley has one hit in his last 19 at-bats, dropping his average to .200. Utley did hit two balls sharply Wednesday - a lineout to center and a hard grounder to shortstop.

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