Howard's Awakening Has Phils on Verge of Title

Mark KriegelCorrespondent IOctober 27, 2008

So now, after a quarter-century without a championship, Philadelphia is poised to rejoice. There will never be a better chance. A town that fancies itself a luckless hardscabble metropolis suddenly looks like a lock.

The Phillies begin tonight with Cole Hamels on the mound at home at Citizens Bank Park, where they are undefeated in the postseason. What's more, Ryan Howard, the most prolific power hitter of the post-steroid era, has returned to his finest form.

Between September 26 and October 25, Howard had been without a home run. Between the sixth inning of Game Three and the eighth inning of Game Four, he hit three. He's gotten on base in five of his last seven at-bats and driven in six runs. The Phillies were dangerous enough without his bat—hey, they got here, didn't they?—but a hot Howard portends doom for the Tampa Bay Rays.

He hit two home runs Sunday night. The second was pretty standard stuff, as he sent a Trever Miller fastball over the right-field fence.

"Just crushed it," said the Rays' manager, Joe Maddon, who has been this postseason's most honest and articulate voice.

Miller, who has been in the big leagues since '96, knew all just from the way the ball came off the bat. He didn't need to follow the trajectory. Miller just looked down, defeated. That made the score 10-2. The Rays—easily the best team in baseball, if you had asked me a week ago—suddenly looked helpless.

Howard's first shot, however, was a subtler announcement, a warning that he was again seeing the ball. In the fourth inning, with two runners on, Andy Sonnanstine—who had been 2-0 this October—threw him curveball after curveball. It was the kind of stuff that had fooled Howard for the past month. But no more. This time, he went with the pitch, poking it over the left-field fence.

"Did a nice job on the breaking ball," Maddon conceded.

As it happened, Howard knocked in five runs Sunday night, tying a franchise World Series record (Milt Howard, Game Four, October 29, 1993). The slump was gone, as mysteriously as it arrived. This is exactly what Maddon must have been fearing.

"Those big power guys, when they hit them, it normally comes in bunches," said the manager. "They get the feel working and all of a sudden every ball looks big, and it's in the right spot."

"Ryan Howard, he's a carrier," said Charlie Manuel. "A carrier is somebody that can take your team and get the big hits and knock in runs, and he can put you on your back ... He might strike out four times in a row, but he's always dangerous."

Maybe the key is believing you always are dangerous. The slumps and streaks will even out, unless you allow the bad stretches to injure your confidence. A month is a long time. Baseball's best power hitter didn't have much opportunity to hide in October. Manuel kept proclaiming his faith in Howard. But what of Howard himself? Hadn't he begun to doubt himself?

"No," he said. "We were winning ... I don't care if I went 0-for-4 or 0-for-the entire postseason."

It was the right answer, though I'm not sure that Howard—or anyone in his position—can really believe it.

"I'm mortal," he said. "I bleed...It's just one of those things...Everybody goes through hot streaks and cool streaks and it's just making the adjustments to be able to get out of them."

But those adjustments, inevitably, are in your head. A man in Howard's position carries a distinct burden—especially in a city frustrated by 100 seasons (25 years, four major teams) without a championship. If Ryan Howard got hot again, it was only because he believed he could.

And now you wonder if the Rays—whose third and fourth hitters, Carlos Peña and Evan Longoria, are 0-for-29—can recover in time. It seems unlikely on the road against Hamels.

Everything is coming up right for the Phillies. Even their starter, Joe Blanton, smashed a home run. Blanton recalls his last homer as a senior in high school.

"That's probably the last time I hit," he said. "As far as the batting goes, I just close my eyes and swing hard in case I make contact."

It's not Blanton's job, hitting home runs. But it is Howard's. His swing can change a series, a season, and even more. He can change, at least in some minor way, the way this city is seen.

He doesn't want to be known as a loser. "I don't think anybody in that locker room upstairs wanted to be associated with that type of label," he said. "We're in a position to change the label."

Never a better chance than tonight. As Maddon might say, it's in the right spot.

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