Howard back in the swing

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

Thankfully, Ryan Howard has not taken to tight-fitting tracksuits and monochromatic headbands. To embrace the idea of baseball's reigning home run king turning into the archetype for such an assault on the eyes – the time-warped jogger – is a difficult enough concept.

"Jogging is good," Howard said this week with a smirk, fully aware that sidewalks quiver at the prospect of his 252 pounds landing full force with each stride. Howard knows, too, that jogging three times a week is supposed to help keep the quadriceps muscle that sidelined him earlier this year from locking up again, and if a doctor told him chewing maple bark would help him hit home runs, Howard would strip a tree himself.

The allure of the home run is that great, its pull as strong as gravity's. When the Philadelphia Phillies first baseman smacked 58 last season – the 10th-highest single-season total, and the biggest number since Roger Maris, Non-Steroid Suspect Division – Howard felt more reciprocity than anything: However much delight he gave fans with his prodigious power, they feted him likewise. To start the 2007 season as Howard did, stuck on just three home runs at the end of April and six as May waned, was the ultimate letdown for both parties.

So jog he must.

And hit he has.

Over his last four games, Howard has smacked three home runs. All have been of standard Howard variety: body coiling, shoulder tucking, hips rotating, head perfectly still, hands turning over just so, balanced like a gymnast atop the beam.

"His swing's been getting good," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "Better. Much better, like in the past."

Such an endorsement from Howard himself won't be coming anytime soon. He is never satisfied with his swing. Not when he hit 11 home runs last spring and not during the season in which he was named the National League's Most Valuable Player and joined the pantheon of great home run hitters. Go ahead. Try to find some derivation of Howard praising his swing last season. It doesn't exist.

The leg injury created an additional layer of problems. So much of Howard's power comes from his ability to shift weight off his back leg as his trunk swivels toward the ball. And with his left quadriceps weakened, Howard trying to push off it was like NASA trying to launch the shuttle by blowing really hard.

"If you're wobbling, you've got no shot," Howard said. "And that was the biggest thing. Hitting starts from the ground up.

"It didn't feel exactly the way I wanted it to. There are going to be those times you take whatever you can get. It could be the ugliest swing in the world and if you can drive it over the fence, you'll take it. Until recently, I haven't been feeling it."

The culprit, Howard believes, is two-fold: The offseason banquet circuit robbed him of time to decant. And a trip to Japan for an all-star tour with Major League Baseball, during which he played in a who's-who infield that included teammate Chase Utley and New York Mets stars Jose Reyes and David Wright, sapped him even more.

Already a bear of a man – in spring training, Howard suggested to Florida football coach Urban Meyer, a visitor for the day, that he could play linebacker, and Meyer countered, "Nah, defensive line" – Howard spent most of the spring fatigued and tried to compensate by adjusting his swing. The quad injury likely cascaded from the tinkering during the spring, and on May 6 Howard finally admitted it was troubling him.

Five days later, Manuel sat him, and Howard eventually served a disabled-list stint. Since he returned May 25, only Prince Fielder, Gary Sheffield and Albert Pujols have hit more home runs than his seven. Managers are taking note, intentionally walking him seven times over the 17-game stretch.

After an awful start, the Phillies have climbed to within four games of the New York Mets in the NL East in spite of injuries that have wrecked their pitching staff. Last season played out similarly: A bad start was nearly erased when Howard's home run binge in the second half vaulted Philadelphia into wild-card contention.

"Yeah, but 58 was last year," shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "He'll tell you that himself. Fifty-eight's over."

At the same time, it lives on. People can look at Howard and see the medallion dangling around his neck with a picture of him and his son, Darian, and they can hear stories about how Howard, befuddled after the buckle on his regular belt broke, deigned to wear his outlandish red uniform buckle to cinch his jeans, and they'll still remember 58, because such a huge number defines a person. Maris might as well have changed his middle name from Eugene to 61.

"It's not like I'm shooting for a number," Howard said, and he doesn't have to. So long as he's healthy, and so long as his swing is right, Howard will be right where he was last year, only with a small twist.

He'll let things jog their course.

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