BOSTON - If Ryan Howard had cracked the code over the last 8 months, he wasn't about to share the intelligence in a public forum 2 days before the Phillies' World Series rematch with the Yankees was set to begin.
"I guess we'll find out," Howard said Sunday afternoon after hitting a double and scoring a run to help the Phillies escape what had been a lackluster series with a 5-3 win over the Red Sox. "To be continued. Just put dot-dot-dot . . . "
Last November, that dot-dot-dot would have been followed by a dash-dash-dash and another dot-dot-dot, as both he and the Phillies limped back to port after losing the World Series in six games to the mighty Yankees.
After a dynamic performance in the National League Division Series and NL Championship Series, Howard's powerful bat was nullified by a Yankees pitching staff that seemed determined to make somebody else beat them.
Their approach was less cautious, and more hyperfocused. Howard struck out 13 times in the six-game series, eclipsing Willie Wilson's previous World Series record of 12. After going 2-for-4 in the Phillies' 6-1 victory in Game 1, including a double off ace lefty CC Sabathia, he managed only two hits in his final 18 at-bats. He finally snapped out of of the slump with a two-run home run off Andy Pettitte in the sixth inning of Game 6, but the Phillies trailed, 7-1, at the time and drew no closer than 7-3.
Howard finished the series with four hits in 23 at-bats.
The Yankees' approach wasn't unlike the approach of a lot of big-league teams - nearly 60 percent of the pitches they threw were breaking balls, and they allowed him to face a righthander in only seven of his 25 plate appearances - they just happened to execute the plan to perfection. Righthander A.J. Burnett features one of baseball's best curveballs when he is on, and he was on against Howard. Lefty starters Sabathia and Pettitte both feature sliders they locate for strikes.
"I think he can probably be a little bit more patient and get better balls to hit," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "I think it's a matter of how good he's hitting at that time. Those are good lefthanders, too. And they make good pitches. Any pitcher that has good stuff, when you get a good ball to hit, you've got to hit it."
Howard, who, in the NLDS and NLCS, had RBI in a record-tying eight consecutive postseason games and went a combined 11-for-31, might have the most revenge to exact in the Phillies' three-game interleague series against the Yankees, which begins tonight and features pitching matchups against Sabathia, the World Series' Game 1 starter, Burnett, who started Game 2, and Pettitte, the Game 3 starter. But he isn't the only intriguing story line.
Roy Halladay has already proved he can beat the Yankees, having gone 18-6 with a 2.84 ERA in 35 starts against them in 12 seasons in Toronto. But it is impossible to ignore the fact that the man he replaced, Cliff Lee, outdueled the man he will face tonight in nine dominant innings in Game 1 last October.
Lefthander Jamie Moyer missed last year's World Series while recovering from abdominal surgery, but probably wouldn't have been in the rotation even if healthy. Kyle Kendrick also wasn't a member of the postseason rotation, having spent most of the regular season at Triple A Lehigh Valley.
Both will get a shot at the Yankees - Kendrick against Burnett tomorrow and Moyer against Pettitte on Thursday.
For the Phillies, however, individual validation is not nearly as important as breaking a skid that has seen them lose 16 of their last 24 games.
"I think we've got to win our division first," Manuel said. "I think we've got to get there. I said that when the World Series is over and I said that in spring training. We want to get to the World Series. And if we play the Yankees, that'll be fine with me. But if we play the Red Sox, that will be fine."
Getting the middle of the Phillies' order back on track will be an important step. Howard has been the most consistent power hitter in the lineup, with Chase Utley hitting only .256 and Jayson Werth coming off a 4-for-10 weekend that might have brought an end to what had been an extended slump.
Once again, Howard should be a focal point.
"Obviously, the way they pitched me in the Series, I'm sure they'll come out with that type of approach," Howard said. "But we'll see. You never know. They might try to switch it up." *
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.