Where will Ryan Howard rank among the great power hitters in Phillies history?
Last night, he continued to argue persuasively for early consideration as one of the finest. Howard, in his 619th major-league game, passed Mike Schmidt (2,404 games) to claim the franchise lead with eight career grand slams. It was one of two home runs that led the Phillies past Washington, 9-6, at Citizens Bank Park.
"I've seen Frank Howard, I've seen [Harmon] Killebrew," said manager Charlie Manuel, looking back on four decades in baseball. "Of course, I've seen Hank Aaron and [Willie] Mays, [Carl] Yastrzemski . . . all the modern-day power hitters, Howard is as strong as any of them."
Howard, 29, managed many feats with one third-inning swing. His grand slam gave the Phillies their first lead of the night. It was only the second home run to reach the third-deck in right field at Citizens Bank Park. Howard hit the other one on June 20, 2006, against the Yankees' Mike Mussina. And his third bases-loaded homer of the season surpassed a career mark held by a franchise legend.
"Sometimes when everything comes together and you get it really good, you never know how far it's going to go," Howard said.
The home runs were not only memorable, they were imperative to the win. The Phillies trailed, 3-0, in the second, before Howard led off the inning with a home run into the second deck in the right-field stands. That blast turned out to be a mere preview of the third-inning dramatics.
After Carlos Ruiz led off that inning with a walk, Cole Hamels moved the catcher to second with a sacrifice bunt. Jimmy Rollins singled to left, scoring Ruiz. Shane Victorino then walked, bringing up Chase Utley with one out and two on.
Utley hit a bouncing grounder on the grass in front of shortstop Alberto Gonzalez, who bobbled the ball, bringing up Howard with the bases loaded. The first baseman's blast then gave the Phillies a 6-3 lead.
"I saw it in the air and just kind of took off running," Howard said. "I wasn't really sure where it was going to come down."
The ample offense turned out to be necessary, because Hamels did not offer his finest performance. The ace, who has not lost since April 23, allowed six runs on eight hits in six innings.
But after experiencing so much scrutiny directed toward him this season, Hamels knew that he was not the story last night.
"It's impressive, how strong he is," Hamels said of Howard.
"Most of the time when he pulls balls he pops them, and they just kind of go over in the first deck. For him to actually get into one, it is saying something how strong he is. When he comes up to bat, as a pitcher you don't want to make that sort of mistake. Those are the moon shots that keep getting shown over and over and over and over on SportsCenter."