DENVER - Ryan Howard didn't drive in the go-ahead run in the Phillies' win Thursday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park. He didn't score the run, either.
But Howard played a small but crucial role in the game-winning rally against the Atlanta Braves when he drew a two-out, pinch-hit walk off Atlanta lefthander Alex Wood. The walk, the only one Wood issued in a complete-game effort, kept the inning alive for Ben Revere, who knocked knock in the game-winning run one batter later.
The walk was also Howard's 10th of the year, which leads the Phillies. Entering yesterday, only six National League players had more walks than Howard this season. Cincinnati's Jay Bruce led the league with 13, entering yesterday.
"That's been stressed to the team from Day 1 - making the pitcher throw strikes and taking walks if they're given," manager Ryne Sandberg said yesterday in Denver when asked whether he's seen a more selective Howard at the plate in 2014. "And with a lineup that has balance, there's a guy behind them that's a good hitter. That's been a message all the way along."
With Howard, however, it's more than notable, since he has struggled to draw walks for most of his career. After a career-high 108 walks in 2006, Howard's walk total dropped in each of the next 3 years; he bottomed out with only 59 walks in 620 plate appearances in 2010.
Howard walked 48 times in 151 games (609 plate appearances) in 2012 and 2013. He didn't draw his 10th walk last year until May 31, in his 50th game of the season.
Howard needed only 15 games in 2014 to reach 10 walks; and none of those walks has been intentional.
"I think he's been more selective overall," Sandberg said. "He's taken walks. And, sooner or later, if he continues to do that, the pitchers will see they have to come at him. With his swing, I think his swing path is in the strike zone where he can hit strikes, lefties or righties. I think he's making some good progress there and having quality at-bats."
Howard entered the current western trip with a .355 on-base percentage; he had a .305 OBP in the last two, injury-abbreviated seasons. Howard's .161 walk rate, which is the second highest of his career, ranked seventh in the NL yesterday.
"[Thursday] that at-bat was huge with the pinch-hit," Sandberg said. "First of all, he's really excelled hitting as a pinch-hitter off the bench, righty or lefty. That's No. 1. No. 2, the guy didn't throw him many strikes, so he didn't go up there just swinging away and going fishing out of the zone.
"He took the walk there and got Ben up there, who was having a hot day. He's the one that drove in the winning run. That was big. That's what we're talking about."
As expected, Cole Hamels will rejoin the rotation in Dodger Stadium next week.
Although the Phillies have not nailed down a day, they're leaning toward Wednesday, which would allow them to split the lefthanders in their rotation. Cliff Lee and A.J. Burnett would likely start Monday and Tuesday, with Hamels making his 2014 debut in the third game of the four-game series.
Hamels, who will replace Jonathan Pettibone in the rotation, would be given an extra day off in that scenario. Hamels threw seven sharp innings at Class A Clearwater on Thursday, his third minor league rehab start.
"Command was good," Sandberg said. "He was throwing strikes and throwing all of his pitches in the zone for strikes. That's all good."
Hamels allowed one run on three hits, including a home run, while walking one and striking out two in seven innings. Hamels continued to throw in the bullpen after his outing was over, reaching 95 total pitches.
"He looked good," said pitching coach Bob McClure, who watched video of the start.
Two months ago, Hamels entered spring training behind schedule after his offseason throwing program was shut down following a bout with biceps tendinitis in November. Hamels' progression was slowed again at the beginning of March when he complained of fatigue, but he's been on an upward path to rejoining the rotation in the last 6 weeks.
Hamels is 1-0 with a 1.13 ERA in two career regular- season starts at Dodger Stadium. Of course, it's also the place where he had one of the best performances of his career: Hamels held the Dodgers to one run in seven innings of Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, the game that clinched the Phillies' trip to the 2008 World Series.
If Hamels starts Wednesday, he also would be in line to pitch in the first game back from the western trip on Tuesday, April 29, against the New York Mets. Hamels is one shy of career win No. 100.
Kyle Kendrick (0-1, 3.50) starts tonight opposite fellow righthander Jordan Lyles (2-0, 4.32). Kendrick is 1-0 with a 5.58 ERA (19 earned runs in 30 2/3 in six career games (five starts) at Coors Field. Kendrick gave up seven runs on 10 hits in 4 1/3 innings of an 8-7 Phillies win in his last start in Denver (June 14, 2013) . . . According to the New York Daily News, 20 major league teams watched free agent and former All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan throw at the University of Tampa on Thursday. The paper reported Hanrahan's fastball topped out at 93 mph. Hanrahan, 32, who had Tommy John surgery last May, could seek a deal similar to the one former Red Sox teammate Andrew Bailey received from the Yankees 2 months ago. Bailey, still recovering from shoulder surgery, signed an incentive-laden, 1-year deal with a base salary of $2.5 million if he makes the big-league roster this season. The deal also includes an option for 2015. The Phillies, who have struggled to find a dependable righthanded arm for the back of the bullpen, could be a potential suitor for Hanrahan.