Changes in the batter's box were more subtle but just as significant. Howard got lower in his stance and crept closer to the inside corner. He saw more pitches per plate appearance than he did in '08 and took a few moments before every at bat to relax on the bench with his eyes closed—"my chill time," he calls it. In the last two months of the regular season he batted .301, and in the playoffs he batted .355 in nine games, winning the NLCS MVP and becoming the first player since Lou Gehrig to drive in a run in eight straight postseason games. In Game 4 of the NLDS, against Colorado, the Phillies trailed 4--2 in the ninth, and Howard was due up fifth. He told his teammates, "Just get me to the plate, boys." He batted with two outs, doubled in the tying runs and then scored the game-winner to clinch the series. "I used to play with Big Papi," says Phillies pitcher Pedro Martinez, thinking back on David Ortiz's theatrics in 2004. "Now I play with Big Sexy."
There is only one way to pitch Howard, and unfortunately for him, everybody in baseball knows it. Against righthanders his OPS is 1.086, better than Joe Mauer's. Against lefties it's .653, worse than David Eckstein's. "When there's money on the table, you need a lefty facing him," says one pitching coach. "And you need to throw him breaking balls." According to Inside Edge, a baseball scouting service, since 2008 Howard has hit .169 against curveballs and sliders from lefthanded pitchers. In Game 4 of the NLCS he crushed a fastball from Dodgers lefty Randy Wolf for a home run. The next two times he came up with runners on base, Wolf and lefty reliever George Sherrill fed him eight straight breaking balls.
Manuel, himself a lefthanded power hitter in his playing days, believes lefties have a particularly hard time against other lefties because they see so few of them on their way to the big leagues. This week the Yankees will greet Howard with southpaw starters CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte, who could start as many as five of seven games. "I'm ready for action," Howard insists.
This World Series is certain to be a boon for ball hawks and television ratings. Even Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake, who usually ignores the World Series, said he might tune in. Two years after Bonds's last at bat, 11 years after the summer of Sosa and McGwire, the time has come to dig the long ball again.