Ryan Howard won't say he is back, simply because there is still ground to make up.

Yet the Phillies first baseman is showing strides that he is regaining his form of a few years ago.

Howard hit a three-run home run to left field in Saturday's 7-2 win over the Washington Nationals. When he is hitting to the opposite field, that is a good sign.

That wasn't the case for much of the last two injury-plagued seasons, with Howard trying to pull everything.

Howard's recent injury history is well documented. He had left Achilles surgery following the injury in the final game of the 2011 National League Division Series.

Last season he had a knee injury that cost him most of the last three months.

He is now showing gradual progress.

"It is still kind of a game of catch-up for me," Howard said after Saturday's win. "I have really been out the last year-and-a-half, two years and I am trying to take it day by day and continue to try to progress."

He has six home runs now in 106 at-bats. Last year he had 11 in 286, so that is progress.

His OPS is now .809 after being .718 in 2012 and .784 last year.

Howard still strikes out a lot, 34 times this season, but he has always done that. Even in his MVP season of 2006, he struck out 181 times.

What he is doing better is using his legs more while hitting instead of relying solely on his arms.

"I have been saying since spring training that I am feeling better and getting my legs up under me and now it is just continue to try to get back into a rhythm," Howard said.

Manager Ryne Sandberg said that Howard has improved recently on defense. In the beginning of the season, he was having his trouble getting to ground balls.

As for offensively, Sandberg is also encouraged.

"Right now he is a threat in any at-bat to pop one or make something happen," Sandberg said. "Overall he has done a good job against righthanded and lefhanded pitching.

Sandberg has a point. Entering Saturday, Howard had a .788 OPS against right-handers and a .798 against lefthanders.

Again, Howard has to show he can stay healthy the entire season. Even though it's only a little more than a month into the season, he does appear to be getting stronger.

While it will take a full consistent year for Howard to prove that he is all the way back, he has shown progress and at this early stage of the season, that is an encouraging sign.