NEW YORK - When you think of singles hitters, you think of Ryan Theriot, of Martin Prado, of Placido Polanco. And when you look at the National League leaderboard in base hits, those three names stare back at you.

But so does this one:

Ryan Howard.

It shouldn't take a bench-press competition to figure out which of the four doesn't belong.

Nobody inside the Phillies clubhouse thinks Howard has suddenly transformed into Ichiro Suzuki. His numbers over the first couple of months of the season are more of a curiosity than a concern. But the fact remains that through 45 games, Howard is hitting for contact at one of the highest rates of his career, while hitting for power at one of the lowest.

Going into last night's game with the Mets, his 55 hits tied for seventh in the National League, but only 29 percent of them have gone for extra bases, a ratio that ranks 65th (tied with Polanco, among others).

Last season, 12.2 percent of his plate appearances ended with an extra-base hit, tied with Raul Ibanez for the second-highest ratio in the league. This year, that figure sits at 8.0 percent, tied for 51st (Ibanez ranks 50th at 8.1 percent).

Like the Phillies' recent offensive slump, nobody on the coaching staff expects Howard's peculiar production to become a seasonlong trend.

In fact, before last night's game, manager Charlie Manuel said Howard's .296 average is reason for optimism about the future, and not critical analysis of the present. He doesn't think that Howard has to choose between hitting for contact and hitting for power.

"How would I like to see him hit?" Manuel said. "I'd like to see him hit .300. Because then he'll hit 40 or 50 home runs, maybe even 60 . . . I saw him hit two balls the other night, and if he hit them in the air, they might have had a chance to go out of the yard."

Manuel and hitting coach Milt Thompson both say that they do not see a significant change in Howard's approach that has led to the disparity between his contact and power numbers (Howard's "isolated power," a stat that subtracts batting average from slugging percentage, is .181 this season, compared with .299 for his career).

Their philosophy about their star slugger is the same as it is with the rest of a lineup that entered last night having been shut out in three of four games: Give it time, and it will come.

"At the end of the year, his numbers will be there," Thompson said.

Manuel: Quiet Ruiz

Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz returned to the lineup after a one-game absence, although if manager Charlie Manuel had his druthers, nobody would have noticed him missing in the first place. When Manuel explained his decision to start the lefthanded hitting Brian Schneider against lefty Hisanori Takahashi on Wednesday, he said that Ruiz was suffering from some "soreness," but declined to say what part of the catcher's body was sore. The night before, Ruiz had one-hopped a couple of throws to second base, so it didn't take a master's degree in deductive reasoning to figure that the problem pertained to his arm. A few minutes later, Ruiz confirmed that he had been battling occasional tightness in his shoulder that affected his throwing.

Both Ruiz and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. downplayed the condition, but Manuel is obviously concerned about opponents testing the catcher on the base paths.

"First of all, he shouldn't have said that, because we don't want you guys broadcasting that his shoulder is hurt," Manuel said. "I know you guys have to know everything, but there are a lot of things that you don't have to know. If they don't know his shoulder is hurt, then they are more apt not to run. I'm not upset that he said it, but at the same time, it's like not having someone in the bullpen available. We're going to say, 'Hey, this guy's not available?' It kind of makes it much easier on the [manager] sitting over there, doesn't it?"