This march has
been like last September for Howard: unusually hot. The Phillies first baseman,
who hit a major-league-rookie-record 10 home runs in September, is still
crushing the ball this spring with 10 dingers through Sunday. Though you can't
make too much of Grapefruit League moonshots, one was significant because it
was a 450-foot blast off a lefthander, Ron Villone of the Yankees. The one blot
on the lefthanded-swinging Howard's sterling rookie season was his performance
against southpaws: a .148 average with one homer and 26 strikeouts in 61 at
This year manager
Charlie Manuel is confident that Howard will have more blasts like the one
against Villone. "It took him a little while to adjust to hitting lefties
in the minors, but he hit them," says Manuel of Howard, who had 46 homers
in Double A and Triple A combined in 2004. "He'll hit them here
When he does,
Howard, 26, will confirm the belief that he is the game's next great slugger.
Though he didn't join the Phillies for good last season until July 1, following
an elbow injury to first baseman Jim Thome, Howard's performance in 88 games
was so strong--.288 average, 22 home runs, .567 slugging percentage--that he
was voted National League Rookie of the Year. Most impressive was how often he
came through in the clutch. "He honestly carried the team," says closer
Billy Wagner, now with the Mets. "I've never seen a kid have such an impact
that soon, just come up and really take over a team offensively."
hits included three game-winning home runs, two against the Dodgers and one
against the Braves, with the last two being grand slams. Howard's monster
September enabled Philadelphia to make a late run at the postseason, but the
club fell one game short of the wild card. The Phillies at least finished a
season's-best 14 games over .500. "It was a fun run," Howard says.
"We showed a lot of heart, a lot of fight."
Howard was putting
up a fight back when the 2005 season started. With Thome entrenched at first
base, Howard was unhappy that Philadelphia had experimented with playing him in
the outfield during spring training and then farmed him out to Triple A
Scranton/ Wilkes-Barre. He was anxious to get to the majors and that spring
reiterated his request to be traded (the first time had come after the '04
season). The Phils were mum on the subject, and as it turned out Thome would
miss 103 games with back spasms and that bad elbow.
A trade was
eventually made, but it was Thome who was shipped out of Philadelphia, in a
November swap with the White Sox that cleared the way for Howard to become a
regular at first base, where his defense is solid and improving and his
hitting, of course, draws raves.
"His power the
other way--that's the big thing," says Mets righthander Steve Trachsel.
"And he's definitely got plenty of power to go to centerfield in any
ballpark. He's young, so he should continue to get better, which could be