PHILADELPHIA-Detailed performance analysis reveals that Ryan Howard is not quite the top-tier player that the home run and RBI columns on the stat sheet make him out to be. The Phillies first baseman’s WARP3, an indicator of his overall value, was 5.4 in the regular season, barely half of the 10.6 that Phillies second baseman Chase Utley produced. Howard also hit just .224/.294/.451 in 265 plate appearances against left-handers, and he was brutal in the field with -14 FRAA. Yet he is generally considered inside the clubhouse as the Phillies’ most valuable player, and if anyone outpolls Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols in this year’s National League MVP voting, it will likely be Howard based on his major league-leading 48 home runs and 146 RBI.
This is not to say that Howard is without value to the Phillies; he can produce multiple runs with one swing of the bat, and his booming homers from the cleanup spot seem to provide a psychological boost to his teammates. He had gone nearly a month without a home run, including the Phillies’ four-game victory over the Brewers in the NLDS and their five-game triumph over the Dodgers in the NLCS, but he has again found his power stroke, and the Phillies do not think it is happenstance that it coincides with their being one victory away from wrapping up the series in Game Five tonight at Citizens Bank Park.
The Phillies will attempt to end the Rays‘ rags-to-riches story and win just their second World Series title in the franchise’s 126-year history tonight when they send ace Cole Hamels to the mound against fellow left-hander Scott Kazmir. It would be the Phillies’ first since 1980, and the first for a major Philadelphia professional sports team (sorry Jon Bon Jovi, but your Soul’s ArenaBowl championship doesn’t count for these purposes) since the 76ers polished off the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1982-83 NBA Finals.
Howard homered twice and drove in five runs Sunday night in Game Four at Citizens Bank Park, giving him three long balls in two days and sparking the Phillies to a 10-2 rout of the Rays and a 3-1 series lead. “In baseball, there’s a difference between great hitters and real, real great hitters, and Ryan Howard is a real, real great hitter,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. “I look at Ryan and he’s a carrier, which is one of my favorite statements. A carrier is somebody who can take your team, get the big hits, knock in runs, and put you on his back and carry you. You can say anything you want, but his numbers sit there for you to look at. He’s a guy that might strike out four times in a row, but he’s always dangerous. It might be that one pitch that he follows well and gets a good pass at it and when it gets up in the air, it comes down behind the fence. I always say that a home run is nothing more than a well-hit fly ball that comes down behind the fence. That’s your greatest hit in baseball. You come back to the dugout, sit down, and work on getting another one. Howard does a pretty good job [at] those things.”
Howard hit his first home run of October after 51 post-season plate appearances without one when he connected on the second of back-to-back shots with Utley in the sixth inning of Game Three on Saturday night off of Matt Garza. That helped spark the Phillies to a 5-4 victory, but it was just a warm-up for Game Four. Howard hit an opposite-field three-run homer to left in the fourth inning off of losing starter Andy Sonnanstine to push the Phillies’ lead to 5-1. Howard then pulled a two-run home run into the right-field seats off of left-hander Trever Miller to cap a four-run eighth that also included a two-run blast by Jayson Werth and turned the game into a 10-2 rout. “To be able to have two home runs in the World Series, that’s the kind of stuff you dream of when you’re a teenager,” Howard said. “Getting to the World Series, obviously you want to win, but being able to do something like that to help my team win is a great feeling. I’ve just been kind of hanging with it the whole postseason, working on getting into a groove at the plate and taking it one day at a time.”
Rays manager Joe Maddon still felt that his team would be hard-pressed to keep Howard down for the entire series. “Guys like that, those big power guys, when they hit them, they normally come in bunches,” Maddon said. “They get the feel working, and all of a sudden every ball looks big and it’s in the right spot. We don’t take anybody lightly. He’s very good, and we have not been pitching around anybody to get to him. You never take people as good as Ryan Howard for granted.”
While Howard had a span of 53 plate appearances without a home run during the regular season from May 30 to June 12, it was difficult to foresee this October power outage. Howard had an outstanding September, hitting .352/.422/.852 with 11 home runs in 102 plate appearances as the Phillies overtook the Mets in the season’s final month for a second straight season to win the NL East. Howard admitted that his October struggles got to him at times, but his track record of home-run hitting gave him confidence that he would regain his power strike. “I’m mortal,” Howard said. “I bleed, just like everybody else bleeds, but it’s just one of those things. Everybody goes through hot streaks and cool streaks, and it’s just making the adjustments quick. Sometimes it takes a little bit longer, but as long as you get back at the right time and get things going, that’s what matters.”
Howard took extra batting practice during the offday Friday, and Manuel believes that enabled Howard to find a comfort level. “He’s been patient these last two games and he’s staying on the ball,” Manuel said. “He’s relaxed and seeing the ball better because he’s slowed down and started concentrating on following the ball, and looking for pitches to hit instead of guessing. He’s looking good. He’s got his timing. His weight shift and balance are good.”
Howard certainly has his groove back at the perfect time, and says that the Phillies continuing to win while he wasn’t hitting home runs allowed him to keep his spirits up. “When you get to the playoffs, it’s not about individual goals or individual stats or stuff like that,” Howard said. “It’s a team effort, and the automatic thing is you’re trying to win a championship. We had different guys stepping up on different nights. I don’t care if I had hit a home run the entire time. I don’t care if I went 0-for-4 or oh-fer the entire postseason, you want that ring.”
Howard and his teammates are closer to being sized for their championship rings. Part of the reason for that is a home run from someone on the opposite end of the spectrum from Howard. Winning pitcher Joe Blanton hit the first home run of his major league career in the fifth inning, a solo shot to left field off of Edwin Jackson that extended the Phillies’ lead to 6-2. Blanton said it was his first home run since his senior year of high school in Franklin, Kentucky, in 1999. He has gone 2-for-26 (.077) with 15 strikeouts in the regular season, and was 0-for-7 with six strikeouts in the postseason before hitting his home run. “I just close my eyes and swing hard in case I make contact,” Blanton said when asked about his hitting philosophy, before kidding that he didn’t open his eyes after the home run until he stepped back up on the mound for the start of the sixth inning.
Blanton did pretty well on the pitching end as well, allowing two runs and four hits in six innings, with two walks and seven strikeouts. He is 2-0 with a 3.18 ERA in three post-season starts, and unbeaten in 13 starts, notching six wins, since being acquired from the Athletics on July 17 in a trade for three prospects. Chad Durbin, Scott Eyre, Ryan Madson, and J.C. Romero combined for three shutout relief innings to finish the five-hitter. “We’ve put ourselves in good position, but I’ll tell our guys the same thing I’ve been telling them for about seven months, and that’s we’re going to play [Game Five] to win just like we have all year,” Manuel said. “We take it one day at a time. I’ve been saying that for so long, I’m sure people around here are tired of hearing it.”
Maddon, meanwhile, does not plan to give any big pre-game speeches tonight, though the Rays’ dream of becoming the first team in history to go from having the worst record in the major leagues one season to a World Series title the next is looking increasingly out of reach. “You can’t take it like you have to win three games in a row,” Maddon said. “The mantra has been one game at a time, and I want to approach it that way, just like we have the whole season. Right now, I would be happy with three one-game winning streaks.”