When rain forced the Phillies to cancel batting practice before their 9-3 win over Washington last night, Ryan Howard slouched back in the chair in front of his locker and joked with Geoff Geary about what he was going to do to come out of his hitting funk.
Well, whatever he decided to do worked, and worked well. Howard jacked his third homer of the season, a two-run shot over the rightfield wall off John Patterson with two outs in the third inning.
In his previous four games, Howard was 2-for-16 with eight strikeouts.
"It felt good. Felt real good, actually," said Howard. "I'll tell you what, though, what's really going to feel even better is when I start putting them together and getting the satisfaction of having a couple good back-to-back at bats."
Before the game, manager Charlie Manuel and hitting coach Milt Thompson said Howard's biggest problem recently has been pressing. Before Tuesday's game against the Nationals, Howard took extra batting practice with Thompson to work on driving the ball to leftfield more instead of pulling the ball too much.
"Good hitters just hit. You don't try to hit," Thompson said. "He's just trying too hard right now instead of just trusting himself and letting the ball travel."
Howard, who is hitting only .213, acknowledged that his normal offseason training rituals were pushed off schedule by all of the appearance requests he received after capturing the 2006 MVP award. While that also might explain Howard's dismal spring training, in which he recorded a .221 batting average and struck out 25 times in 68 plate appearances, it has been anything but a distraction or added pressure, according to Howard.
"All the talk is pretty much the same,'' he said. "Everybody saying this and everybody's saying that, but I don't pay attention to it. The focus is on myself and getting myself right to where I feel like I can get back to helping this team."
Howard, who returned to the lineup Sunday after missing three games with a sprained ligament below his left knee, seemed to be back in form following a monster homer in a 9-3 win at Cincinnati.
But in the next two games, Howard was only 1-for-8.
Howard said the early-season skid has been a cause of concern, but he is trying not to let it get to him. He isn't always successful. Monday night against Houston, after striking out for the third time, he shattered his bat in frustration.
"It's one of those things where it's tough if your frustrations get the best of you," he said. "It's something that usually goes down, but you just want to be part of everything and go out there and get some good [swings]."
Manuel said he can't foresee Howard having such a poor year as Pat Burrell did in 2003, when Burrell hit only .209 after signing a 6-year, $50 million deal.
"[Ryan] is a different kind of hitter,'' Manuel said. "Pat has power from right-center to left while Ryan can hit the ball out from any part of the field."
Manuel said he is noticing Howard over-swinging a lot more than he has in the past, especially when he strikes out.
"Sometimes you can know what you're doing wrong, but just can't correct it," Manuel said.
Howard knows his home run last night doesn't get him all the way out of his slump but he still looks at it as a steppingstone.
Through 20 games last year, Howard recorded 24 hits and five homers in 72 at-bats, which is part of the reason Manuel hasn't been too concerned.
"Take it to the bank, write it down. I'll be responsible for it. This guy is going to hit," Manuel said.
Struggling lefthanded pitcher Matt Smith walked three and allowed a run in the seventh inning, raising his ERA to 11.25. Smith now walked 11 in four innings over nine outings. The Phillies' brass met behind closed doors after the game, perhaps to discuss Smith's immediate fate . . . Triple A Ottawa third baseman Brennan King hit a homer in the ninth inning of the Lynx' 9-2 win over Scranton/ Wilkes-Barre Tuesday night. It was the first homer in Ottawa's 14 games this season, spanning a course of 480 at-bats . . . Setup man Brett Myers pitched a scoreless eighth inning and would have pitched the ninth had the Phillies not scored more in the bottom of the eighth. Myers, who has pitched in relief four times, said he is prepared to pitch in back-to-back games for the first time. *