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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 Phillies winning unless Howard snaps out of slump

Story Highlights

In the World Series, Howard is 3 for 19 with one RBI and a record-tying 12 K's

Howard has always been a virtual non-factor against lefties, hitting .207 this year

The Yankees have been hammering Howard with breaking balls

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Ryan Howard
Ryan Howard is hitting just .158 in the World Series after hitting .355 with 14 RBIs in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
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PHILADELPHIA -- Just to the left of the 374-foot marker in left-center field at Citizen's Bank Park, sandwiched between advertisements for Southwest Airlines and Budweiser, is a sign that brings in no money but may be just as valuable to helping the Phillies cash in this World Series. It is of a microphone between the letters HK, and it is commemorating late Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas, who passed away earlier this season. For the fans and the team, it serves as a reminder of the man whose distinct baritone was the voice of the team for nearly four decades. For Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, it is something else: his latest target in an ongoing effort to shake a puzzling and powerful slump.

During batting practice before Game 5 on Monday night, Phillies hitting coach Milt Thompson pointed to the sign and in an effort to remind Howard to try using the entire field, told his struggling slugger, "You're going to hit one to the HK sign today." After Philadelphia's 8-6 win. Thompson shrugged his shoulders and said with a chuckle. "I was wrong."

It was easy for Thompson to smile on Monday after another of his hitters, Chase Utley, smacked two more home runs to give him a record-tying five in the Series and lead the Phillies long-awaited offensive outburst to victory. But as Thompson well knows, the ongoing slump of Howard's remains no laughing matter. As the series shifts to New York, all signs point to it continuing. Not only did Howard not hit the ball to the wall on Monday, he didn't hit the ball at all. In the latest miserable game of an increasingly miserable series, he went 0 for 2 with two strikeouts, bringing his total to a World Series-record-tying 12 with still one (and perhaps two) games remaining. He has gone just 3 for 19 in the series with one RBI. And since going 2 for 5 in Game 1 with two doubles and an RBI, he has stranded all seven batters he has had on base, and has hit the ball out of the infield just twice.

Theories about Howard's struggles abound, from poor mechanics to the Yankees' scouting reports on him to the simple fact that he is, and has always been, a virtual nonfactor against the left-handed pitchers that have preyed on him thus far in the series. This season, Howard batted .207 against lefties, the fourth-worst average in the National League, with a .298 on-base percentage and .356 slugging percentage, compared to .319/.395/.691 against righties.

Whatever the cause, the simple fact remains that if the Phillies are to continue and then complete their comeback against the Yankees in the World Series this week, they will need Howard to be the slugging force he was in the first two rounds of the postseason. Against the Rockies and Dodgers, he batted .355 with 14 RBIs, matching a postseason record with at least one RBI in eight straight games en route to earning NLCS MVP honors. Even with Howard's alarming lack of production, the Phillies have managed to send the series back to the Bronx thanks mostly to the slugging exploits of the man who hits in front of Howard (Utley), but it's hard to imagine them winning it unless Howard snaps out of his slump soon.

While Utley has already sent five balls into the seats, Howard has put the ball in play just seven times in the entire series. Despite three strikeouts in the past two games, he also managed a single in Game 4 and drew two walks in Game 5, giving him hope that his pitch recognition is improving and that a breakout is awaiting in New York. "I just have to continue to try to see pitches and try to have good at-bats," he said Monday night.

This was a much more calm Howard than the one who snapped at the media after Game 3 and was nowhere to be found after Game 4. After the Phillies lost on Saturday night, in which Howard struck out three more times on the heels of a Game 2 in which he K'd in each of his four at-bats, he told assembled reporters waiting to ask him about his difficulties to "get away from my locker." Later that night, he said, "I'm a little bit anxious at the plate right now. It's just a matter of calming down."

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