PHOENIX - Everybody wants to know why, and everybody wants to hear about the miracle solution.

It is May 8, and Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard is hitting .198 with five home runs and 19 RBIs. He isn't hitting the ball to the opposite field like he had in the past. He is striking out more frequently. He looks terribly frustrated at the plate at times.

Reasons to worry?

"You know, it's funny," hitting coach Milt Thompson said. "If this was happening in the middle of the season, it wouldn't be such a big deal."

There is truth in that. If Howard had been his normal self and suddenly hit a slump in July, his numbers would be cushioned by three solid months of baseball. But they're not, so they stick out like Jessica Simpson and Tyra Banks at a Mensa convention.

But could the solution be as simple as better health?

Howard will not be in the starting lineup for the three-game series against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field, which began last night. The first baseman has been bothered by a sore left quadriceps since spring training. Howard, manager Charlie Manuel and athletic trainer Scott Sheridan met yesterday, and there was enough concern about his thigh that they decided to rest him until he is examined by team physician Michael Ciccotti on Friday in Philadelphia.

Howard is still available to pinch-hit. He fouled out in that role in the ninth last night.

"In a couple of days, hopefully it'll feel better," Howard said. "If not . . ."

Howard thinks his health has as much to do with his struggles as anything.

"My quad hasn't been the best," he said. "It's my back leg. It's my leg that I push off of that helps generate that power. When you're off, you're rushing things. You're off balance. Right now, I just can't stay on my back side, so I'm pushing everything forward and trying to go get everything instead of letting it come to me. It's just a matter of getting back to trusting myself, being relaxed and having fun."

"We want to see if we can get him 100 percent," Manuel said. "It's gotten to the point where I figure if we can, it's time to get him completely healthy where he feels 100 percent like he can feel good about doing his job."

But there have been other reasons or theories for Howard's struggles, and Howard acknowledges them as potential factors.

Manuel and others have maintained that Howard simply is putting too much pressure on himself to produce after hitting .313 with 58 homers and 149 RBIs last season, when he won the National League MVP award. And once that happens, a hitter digs himself into a deeper hole.

Phillies general manager Pat Gillick agrees.

"I think he's trying too hard," Gillick said. "I don't think it's his approach or his swing. I just think he's trying too hard. I'm not worried about him. I don't see anything mechanically. I don't see anything with his approach to his swing that's out of whack."

So could internal or external pressures truly be affecting Howard at the plate?

Howard won't rule it out completely.

"When you go out there, you want to do good," Howard said. "Maybe I am trying too hard. Maybe it will help to step back and relax a little bit. I don't want to say I'm pressing or anything like that, but sometimes you just want it to happen and things just keep building up and sometimes you just have to take a step back."

Howard said outside expectations and a rising public profile - he is appearing in Subway commercials with Jared Fogle - have not bothered him.

"That's all just part of it," he said. "That comes with it. You've seen it before after I won rookie of the year. I went through the same stuff. To me that really doesn't bother me that much, all the expectations and stuff. That didn't really bother me then and it doesn't really bother me now. It's just a matter of getting to where I'm comfortable, and right now I'm trying to force myself to be comfortable instead of just going out there and letting it happen."

But there also are mechanical issues at the plate.

"He's got a reputation now," said former Giants and Cubs manager Dusty Baker, who was in San Francisco on Sunday for ESPN's coverage. "It's just a matter of adjustments. He'll make them. I'm not worried about him. He's too good not to make them. He's too smart not to make them.

"It looks like the pitchers have him inside-conscious. And if you're inside-conscious, you get the quick shoulder and the quick hip and you don't hit the pitch that's your best pitch, which is away from you. If he can get jammed a couple times and get a couple cheap hits, he'll start rolling again."

Thompson agrees.

"He's not driving the ball to left field like he did last year," he said. "They're busting him in, so now he's trying to be inside-conscious. The good thing about Ryan is that he lets the ball travel. He'd actually let the ball get on the plate and hit the ball out there. And right now, due to the fact of his quad or something, he can't stay on that leg and drive the ball back there.

"He'll be fine. Don't worry about him. He'll figure it out, believe me. He's getting there."

Howard doesn't seem outwardly worried when asked about it.

And he has been asked about it. A lot.

But those endless questions come with the territory of being the reigning MVP and a rising star. At least he hasn't lost his sense of humor.

"You've watched me grow," Howard said, his voice suddenly booming. "You've watched me blossom from the caterpillar to the butterfly."

Contact staff writer Todd Zolecki
at 215-854-4874 or tzolecki@phillynews.com.
Read his blog at http://go.philly.com/zozone.