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Ryan Howard has a healthy attitude about 2013 season

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Ryan Howard got married in 2012. As for the rest of the year, there wasn't much worth remembering.

Phillies' Ryan Howard fields a ground ball during Spring Training workouts in Clearwater, FL on Wednesday, February 13, 2013. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Phillies' Ryan Howard fields a ground ball during Spring Training workouts in Clearwater, FL on Wednesday, February 13, 2013. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)Read more

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Ryan Howard got married in 2012. As for the rest of the year, there wasn't much worth remembering.

After undergoing surgery to repair a ruptured left Achilles' on Oct. 12, 2011, Howard didn't get into a major league game until the year was half over, on July 6, when the Phillies were in last place and 13 games out of first.

He played in 71 games in 2012; in his six previous major league seasons as an everyday player, Howard never played in fewer than 143 games. It really wasn't until the very end of those 71 games that Ryan Howard had a favorable Ryan Howard moment.

On Sept. 19 at New York's Citi Field, with the Phillies down to their last out and trailing by a run, Howard ripped a game-winning two-run homer off Mets lefthander Josh Edgin. It was the first of four home runs in 4 days for Howard.

With the calendar now turned to 2013, Howard hopes to take that small success and make it a regular occurrence again.

Now 16 months removed from surgery, including two offseasons to heal and regain his strength, Howard was among the early arrivals in Camp Clearwater this month. And like righthander Roy Halladay a day before him, Howard spoke about being strong, healthy and eager to return to his old form this season.

Just try not to use the world "old."

"People talking about older and older and older and older," Howard said, wanting to address a criticism often leveled at his team. "Jamie Moyer - I'm sure people told him he was old and this and that, but Jamie Moyer would go out every year and show people that he can play and he can get it done.

"I don't buy into the old thing. It's all about how young you feel inside and how well you take care of yourself . . . If people want to call us old, that's fine, but I think going out there this year, we're going to show people that we're not old."

For the record, Howard turned 33 in November. But whether Howard (and the 35-year-old Halladay, and 34-year-old middle infielders Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins) can be an All-Star-caliber player this year isn't necessarily about fighting off Father Time or taking an offseason trip to the Fountain of Youth.

Staying healthy is paramount, of course. Howard, however, also has to reconnect with his swing.

Howard hit .219 in 2012, with a .295 on-base percentage and .423 slugging percentage. All were career lows.

Although he hit 10 home runs and drove in 46 runs in his final 47 games, Howard also struck out 99 times in 292 plate appearances, more than once in every three trips to the plate.

Looking beyond last season, Howard's numbers have been in steady decline since 2009.

"I think he's got some work to do, and I think he knows that," manager Charlie Manuel said. "We'll definitely be talking to him more about hitting; we'll try to prepare him more and he'll definitely get a lot of playing time in the games [this spring]."

Manuel first made his bones in baseball as a hitting coach who built up the likes of Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez in the minor leagues. So what does he see with Howard?

"I'd like to see him be more aggressive and quicker in his swing," Manuel said. "I think over the course of the last couple years, he used to carry a doughnut and use it in batting practice and just kind of nice and easy hit the ball. I think sometimes when he gets in the game, I'd like to see him be a little bit quicker with the bat, more aggressive. Not overswing, but be quicker."

To be fair to Howard, health and performance go hand-in-hand. Even when he did return to the field in 2012, he wasn't near full strength physically or mentally. In one breath, Howard acknowledged as much Thursday.

"It's one of those things where you're just not 100 percent confident in it," Howard said. "You can't do the things you normally could do. Sometimes you might try to make a cut and you might feel something. There is always going to be that fear in that it might do this or it might rupture again."

But in another breath . . .

"I don't think it affected me too much [in the batter's box]. It's one of those things you power through. Trying to do what I could on basically one leg, I don't think it affected me that bad."

For what it's worth, Howard said the Achilles' injury "is not even a second thought in [his] mind" as he begins 2013.

Howard, Utley and the other position players in camp took batting practice Thursday at Bright House Field and both middle-of-the-order veterans at least look better than they did a year ago. Their swings look strong, and their strides don't look tentative.

Howard, who also broke his right big toe at the end of the 2012 season, played through the last leg of his rehab from Achilles' surgery last summer. When the season ended, he was able to return to his normal offseason regiment of getting strong and in shape for the season.

"Phenomenal," Howard said of his left leg, which he injured in the final play of the 2011 season. "My left leg feels phenomenal compared to this time last year, compared to where it was when I came back . . . My Achilles' is a non-factor."

With 2012 as evidence, the Phillies need Howard, Halladay and Utley on the field if they have any hopes of returning to the top of the National League East. But unlike Halladay and Utley, who can become free agents after this season, Howard has at least 3 years and $85 million left on his contract with the Phils. For that reason, the Phillies need to see something is left on that investment.

"I just have to let the inner me come out at the plate and be relaxed," Howard said. "I have to trust myself, trust my ability, and let it fly."