CLEARWATER, Fla. - If you've played baseball at any level, you can count on one bit of bench jockeying when a batter is overmatched by a fastball that produces a pathetically late swing.

"Get the donut off your bat."

Baseball-Reference.com defines the "donut" like this:

"A weighty torus that is slipped over the handle of the bat to increase its weight. Players use such devices to loosen their muscles prior to batting in a game. It can often be seen lying in the on-deck circle."

New York Yankees catcher of the 1960s Elston Howard is generally credited with inventing the circular weight that is slipped over the bat handle and comes to rest just under the label. Ellie figured there had to be a more efficient way for a hitter to prepare for an AB than swinging two or three bats while on deck, the accepted practice for generations. The donut enabled a hitter to swing the bat with his normal grip instead of awkwardly grabbing two handles and taking unnatural practice swings.

During Ryan Howard's first couple of batting-practice rounds each day, the Phillies slugger doesn't take the donut off his bat.

He steps into the cage with the donut still firmly in place and takes his cuts while swinging the approximate weight of a second bat. Most donuts add approximately 28 ounces of weight to the bat. Howard swings a custom maple bat crafted for more than 300 major leaguers by Jack Marucci, the bat maker to the stars from Baton Rouge, La. Fifteen players swung the bats in last year's World Series, including Howard, Chase Utley, Raul Ibanez, Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano.

But Howard is the only one who carries a Marucci mace into the cage and actually swings at batting-practice pitches with the donut still in place. Babe Ruth was famed for swinging a 42-ounce cudgel. Ditto Dick Allen, who hefted that enormous piece of lumber before injuring his shoulder and hand.

Ryan Howard is swinging 62 ounces of wood and plastic-encased lead at BP pitches that, while only traveling in the 70 mph range, arrive at the plate as swiftly as in-game fastballs because the coaches typically throw from the front of the mound.

There is apparent method to this madness. Phillies batting coach Milt Thompson estimates that the dreaded Ryan Howard Shift cost the slugger a staggering 51 base hits last season. Most were line-drive tracers fielded by an infielder stationed at the approximate depth of a shortfielder in softball. Most of those thwarted singles became 4-3 outs.

Watch Howard hefting all that weight and you notice he is taking butter-smooth, controlled swings and flicking soft liners to left with most of them. Right toward the empty space the shift creates from the normal shortstop position (where the third baseman is stationed) to the leftfielder. Although most teams use the radical three-infielders-to-the-right-of-second alignment with only the third baseman on the left side of second, they conversely play their outfields straight away. It is well established that when Ryan gets a ball airborne, his spray range can be foul line to foul line. But when he hits it on the ground or smokes a line drive, it is almost invariably into the shift.

I stood chatting with venerable Tampa Bay Rays special assistant Don Zimmer yesterday while Howard did his donut thing. Zim, who has been in uniform a lot this spring, is 79 years old and has been in the game for 63 of those years.

"Ever see a batter take BP with the donut on his bat?" I asked one of the game's great characters. "Never," Zim said. "Not anybody at any time. But it looks like it enables him to really wait on the ball and take it the other way with a nice, easy swing."

Thompson would prefer a more traditional approach to taking the ball to left, "but he's always done it. I don't know why he does it, but if he's comfortable doing it, I'm OK with it. I just worry he's going to take a swing and hit the ball right on that donut."

Which might leave his hands vibrating for about an hour . . .

With the donut safely in the on-deck circle yesterday, Howard went out to face Matt Garza, the Rays' No. 2 starter. The righthander is a large man with electric stuff that sometimes short-circuits.

Yesterday it short-circuited twice.

In the first inning, with the radical shift in place, Howard struck out on something offspeed and out of the zone. All the donut-dunking in the world won't help you hit a ball you can't reach.

Advantage Garza and the shift.

With one out in the fourth, Garza fell behind 1-0 and challenged Howard with a fastball. He turned on it like a cobra striking a fleeing rodent. The towering homer landed on the jammed berm in right.

Advantage Howard. Shift needed to be deeper and higher.

One out in the sixth . . . Garza missed with two breaking balls. Howard took both patiently. Garza buzzed two fastballs for strikes. I was sure Matt would try to replicate his first-inning strikeout with something slow, low and out of the zone. Instead, he tried to power a fastball past Ryan.

It was an opo-boppo, a crushed bomb to deepest leftcenter that battled the stiff crosswind and landed behind the John Jameson sign. Tug McGraw would be proud.

Game, set, match Howard . . .

So Ryan Howard's quiet spring has awakened. That is what he brings to the middle of the Phillies' potent order. Suddenly, he is hitting .356 and leads the team with 16 hits. He has three homers, his OBP is .420 and Ryan is slugging .600.

And nobody cares if he takes his first two rounds of BP with a bat wearing a necklace of Dunkin' Donuts. *

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