Spring headlines: Ryan Howard’s comeback soaring; Rafael Furcal and Matt Garza stalled

Mike Oz
Big League Stew

Ryan Howard is looking like a beast this spring — with a ridiculous home run Sunday sure to add to the whispers that the big slugger might be back.

The Philadelphia Phillies first baseman, whose career started so high by winning Rookie of the Year and MVP in his first two seasons, was in unfamiliar territory last season. He stunk.

Coming off an achilles tendon injury in the 2011 playoffs, Howard didn't play until July. Then he hit .219/.295/.423 in 72 games with the under-achieving Phillies, all easily career lows.

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It's too early for the full "Ryan Howard is back!" proclamation, exclamation point and everything. But we'll say this: So far this spring, Howard is swinging like a guy with something to prove — and, consequently, he's making baseballs fly very far. Case in point: This one he annihilated on Sunday against the Toronto Blue Jays. It left the stadium and was sent to play in traffic outside Bright House Field.

With that three-run homer, Howard is now hitting .417 in 24 at-bats this spring, with three homers, three doubles and 10 RBIs. After the game, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel told reporters:

''He's starting to get his legs under him,'' manager Charlie Manuel said. ''He's getting his stroke.''

Manuel has been playing Howard every day to get him into game shape. And while we feel obliged to remind everyone once again that it's still exhibition baseball, Howard's performance thus far has to be encouraging to Phillies fans ... and scary to his NL East foes.

For you fantasy baseballers out there —go sign up already — you might also be interested to know that Andy Behrens over at Roto Arcade is calling Howard the "most under-appreciated, undervalued name in fantasy" this season.

Bad news for Furcal, Garza: On the opposite end of the comeback spectrum, we find St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal and Chicago Cubs pitcher Matt Garza. Both got further bad news on Sunday. They won't be ready for opening day. And in Furcal's case, it could be much longer.

Furcal has ceased all baseball activity, that's per Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com. Furcal partially tore his ulnar collateral ligament in August. He didn't have offseason surgery, just tried to rehab and rest his right elbow with hopes of being ready for opening day. Nope.

Writes Langosch:

Furcal has thrown with limitations since reporting to Spring Training, though he made what looked like a step forward when the switch-hitter resumed swinging from the left side last week. Adding that stress to his ailing right elbow, however, appears to have been too much.

Since taking several at-bats in a "B" game on Thursday, Furcal has not felt right.

"He went in a bad direction," manager Mike Matheny said before the team's game against the Nationals on Sunday. "We know that he's done quite a bit of rehab, and to go backwards isn't necessarily a good sign. Right now, he's having pain just standing around."

The Cardinals now find themselves in a medical "grey area" with Furcal. It'll take some more time before they know his status. For now, the team is turning toward Pete Kozma and Ronny Cedeno to play shortstop.

Garza, meanwhile, has had a lot written about him already this spring. He's coming off an injury-shortened 2012, also related to his right elbow. The Cubs have been monitoring Garza closely this spring, this time following a strained left lat.

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Now, the news isn't good. Garza is getting shut down for a week. He's starting the season on the disabled list and might be out longer. Per Carrie Muskat at MLB.com:

Cubs manager Dale Sveum said Garza most likely will miss the first month of the regular season, but the pitcher was a little more optimistic.

"It could be [I'm out until May], but that's not what I'm planning," Garza said. "I don't sit back and let things happen, I try to make them happen. I'll keep pushing and going."

The latest issue is not a setback, Garza said, but a warning that he isn't ready to resume throwing.

"Now we know it's just time," Garza said. "We pushed it and pushed it hard. With the recovery rate I was on, everything felt great and we said, 'Let's go, let's go, let's go.' It's just the body's way of saying you still need to take a little more time.

"It's not a setback, it's more like coming to the realization that you can't out-mind your body too fast," he said. "It's fine. Yeah, I'm not on pace now to open up [the regular season], but I'm going to keep pushing and keep trying to get there."

With Garza out of the picture, the Cubs named Jeff Samardzija their opening day starter for 2013, which we're pretty sure makes him the only ex-Notre Dame football star to be starting this year as a pitcher on opening day — unless the Marlins inexplicably sign Manti Te'o and trot him out there.

Johan throws off mound at Mets camp: Johan Santana was ready to step on a mound after all.

Like many things involving the New York Mets, Santana's status got muddy this weekend. He went from, on Saturday, not being ready to pitch off a mound for 10 more days to, on Sunday, pitching off a mound. Maybe the Mets have different calendars than the rest of us?

MLB.com's Anthony DiComo sorts through the madness:

All offseason, Mets officials said Santana would report to camp in the same shape as any other pitcher, healthy and ready to play. It was to be his first completely healthy spring since undergoing surgery to repair a torn left shoulder capsule in September 2010, and on the first official day of Spring Training, Collins affirmed his own confidence by naming Santana the Opening Day starter.

Days later, the situation changed. Santana, who had been throwing regular bullpen sessions, ceased throwing off a mound. When tests revealed no structural damage, the Mets diagnosed Santana with left shoulder weakness, saying he would appear in a Grapefruit League game around March 10.

That timeline seemed impossible as recently as Saturday afternoon, when Alderson said Santana would not even climb atop a mound until the middle of the month. But less than a day later, Santana did precisely what Alderson said he was not close to doing.

"It's Johan Santana," pitching coach Dan Warthen said. "When he's ready, he's ready."

Photo of the day: That prospect looking familiar? Perhaps like a young Vladimir Guerrero. With good reason: It's his nephew, Gabriel Guerrero, a 19-year-old in the Mariners organization.

Tweet of the Day: Shane Victorino, now with the Boston Red Sox, ribs ex-Phillies teammates Jimmy Rollins with this one.

Spring training is here. Stretch out with us.
Follow @MikeOz and @bigleaguestew, on Twitter, along with the BLS Facebook page.

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