WASHINGTON - Ryan Howard wants to get paid.
He deserves it. The Phillies cannot overpay their 28-year-old slugger.
Not with the all the fannies he puts in the seats: fannies who pay to park their cars, then drink beer, eat Bull's BBQ and buy "Ryan Howard" jerseys for themselves, "Chase Utley" jerseys for their daughters.
If Howard wants to cash like A-Rod, Manny and Jeter, then he'd better start producing like them. He needs to start winning games, sometimes by himself.
You know. Like he did last night.
His RBI double to left-center off lefty Matt Chico in the first inning gave the Phillies the lead - a weak poke that flew 300 feet and three-hopped to the wall.
His solo homer in the fifth - a borderline low, flat, 0-2 slider from Chico - made it 4-0 and landed in the second deck.
His two-run shot in the sixth, a first-pitch, low, outside, 90-mph fastball off Jesus Colome, punctuated an eight-run frame and might have chipped one of the new seats in right-centerfield at Nationals Park.
"I was trying to hit 'em where they were pitched," Howard said. "Each at-bat, I was trying to get down, trying to hit it to leftfield."
On all three, he waited; on all three, he extended his mighty arms and snapped his thick wrists and watched 'em sail.
The Phillies entered last night having lost seven of 13. They had scored nine runs in their last four games, one of which they won. With New York and Florida treading water, it was a fine time for the Phillies to stretch themselves back ahead of the Marlins.
The Phillies haven't made more hay, in part, because No. 3 hitter Utley and No. 5 hitter Pat Burrell – who carried the team through the season's first 5 weeks – have become human, and feared. With Howard fishing, they aren't seeing fastballs to crush.
Their strikeouts framed Howard's homer in the fifth.
But the Phillies haven't made more hay, mainly, because the guy hitting in between Utley and Burrell - Subway Jared's buddy, the face of "MLB 08 The Show" - was mired below .200.
Why pitch to Burrell and Utley when you can face a guy who has a harder time connecting than Hillary Clinton?
And, witness last night, that's all Howard needs to do: Make contact. Shoot it to the opposite field, or square it up to center, or get around on it, the ball just jumps: flick, smack, bam . . . fifth double, 11th homer, 12th homer.
In the front of his mind, Howard knows he doesn't need to swing long and hard and miss, trying, with one swat, to raise his average 100 points and boost his contract from $10 million to $200 million.
In the back of his mind, he, like most hitters, believes that a little extra will mean a lot.
Sadly, Howard bristles when his record-setting strikeout pace is brought up. Hilariously, he points out that guys who chronically ground out weakly don't receive the same type of criticism he receives.
Whatever. Wear it, pal.
For one, Howard skated through his record 199 strikeouts last season with minimal criticism.
In 2002, the media kept a running tally as Brewers shortstop Jose Hernandez approached Bobby Bonds' record, falling one shy, with 188. Ditto when the Reds' Adam Dunn broke it in 2004, with 195.
Last season, when Howard matched Dunn's record with six games to play, the media was distracted by: Howard's 42 homers at that point, the Phillies' run toward the playoffs and teammate Jimmy Rollins' surge to succeed Howard as the National League MVP.
And, yes, Howard's prodigious missing is getting a lot of play . . . but imagine the attention it would be given if the team were under .500, if Burrell and Utley weren't obscuring his failure, if the bullpen and Cole Hamels weren't saving the early season.
Another thing. While Howard's MVP season in 2006 was memorable for his 58 homers and 149 RBI, it was very intriguing because he hit .313. The batting average indicated that Howard both had a good eye and, despite 181 strikeouts, he was willing to accept the occasional flare or groundball up the middle. Howard hit a half-dozen infield singles in April 2006, his first full season, which helped him finish the month at .306.
Last April - hindered by a thigh injury, overweight and steamed that the Phillies only renewed his contract instead of meeting his obscene and justified contract demands - Howard hit .221 with three homers, .204 with six homers by the time the leg sent him to the disabled list after his May 9 appearance.
It's May 22. Howard began last night's action with 10 homers . . . and 68 strikeouts. That's a pace (love the pace thing) for 234 Ks. Which would be a record.
Again, he's not happy, after an acrimonious arbitration win in which the Phillies offered him $7 million and he won the $10 million, shattering the record for a player with his service time, and his strikeouts.
Again, he had played like a disaffected, overswinging, underpaid centerpiece.
Maybe when he gets his money - oops; that is, if, since the Phillies control him for three more seasons - maybe then the cold springs will thaw.
Until last night, he wasn't playing like a Manny, or an A-Rod, or a Jeter.
One night isn't enough.
"It's just 1 night only," cautioned manager Charlie Manuel, who, as a Phillies special assistant, helped polish Howard in the minors.
Does that go for Howard, too?
"That goes for everybody." *
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