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Posted: Tuesday November 3, 2009 1:31PM; Updated: Tuesday November 3, 2009 1:50PM
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INSIDE BASEBALL

Hard to imagine Phils winning unless Howard gets going (cont.)

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He isn't the only slugging first baseman to be struggling in this World Series -- Mark Teixeira of the Yankees is batting just .105, but he has a home run and two RBIs, to 0 and 1 for Howard, and has struck out a comparatively paltry seven times. But because the Phillies still trail in the series, it can be said that Howard's lack of hitting has been more detrimental to the Phillies than Teixeira's has been to the Yankees.

The Yankees remain cautious with Howard, knowing full well that he is talented enough to turn his misfortune around at almost any moment. To avoid that, they are likely to repeat their pitching pattern to him until he proves he can force them not to. According to the pitch-by-pitch data from MLB.com, in the first five games of the series, Howard has faced 92 total pitches. Of those, 27 were fastballs, 27 were sliders and 24 were curveballs. With rare exceptions, the fastballs have been simply get-ahead pitches designed to set up their off-speed offerings, and the Yankees have used this strategy to maximum effect. Of those 54 breaking balls, Howard has swung at 21 of them, missed 11 entirely, fouled off eight and put just two of them in play, both of which resulted in harmless pop ups to shortstop.

The postseason may be a sample size of limited time, but a lack of time is exactly what the Phillies have in order to get Howard straightened out. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins suggested the problem might be "mental," as Howard tries too hard to produce. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel pulled Howard aside during Game 3 and told him he needed to keep his weight balanced so his hands don't drift forward. Thompson has been imploring him to hit the ball where it's pitched and try to keep his front shoulder from flying open.

That last flaw is a telltale sign that even if the Yankees aren't getting Howard to bite on their off-speed pitches, they are getting him out of sorts enough that even if he does make contact he isn't likely to be able to drive the ball with his characteristic force. Howard is stuck in a delicate balancing act: trying to be fast enough to react to a curveball or slider before it starts to break away from him, but not so quick that he can't react at all. "He's trying to be too quick," Thompson said. "You can be so in a hurry to hit but you still have to see the ball and react."

All of this means that a batter's reaction time, already less than a fraction of a second, is sped up even further, leaving Howard to flail at a ball that has already made its precipitous drop, taking with it his batting average (now .158 for the Series), his confidence and perhaps the Phillies chances of repeating as World Series champions.

If Howard is to break out of his slump in Game 6, he will have to do it against a pitcher -- New York's Andy Pettitte -- who thoroughly confounded him during his three at-bats in Game 3 that included two strikeouts, and against yet another steady diet of filthy breaking balls. In each at-bat, Pettitte started him with a fastball or cutter, then threw him nothing but sliders.

Howard will also have to do it without Thompson's recommended visual aid. The Phillies have Tuesday off, but the hitting coach swears that by the time the Phillies get to Yankee Stadium for batting practice on Wednesday, he'll have a new sign in left-center field all picked out for Howard to take aim at. Of course, he may want to keep Howard away from that part of the ballpark altogether. After all, that is the expansive stretch of baseball real estate where hitters' hopes and would-be base hits often go to die. It is known simply as Death Valley.

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