It was just a day off for Ryan Howard. That's what Ryne Sandberg said after holding his first baseman out of the starting lineup for just the third time in 49 games.
"I've been looking for a day to give him a break," Sandberg said before Tuesday night's rain-delayed 6-2 loss to the Colorado Rockies. "He's played a number of games in a row and had a real good approach against a righthanded pitcher [Monday] and I was happy with that."
The timing seemed awkward because Howard was coming off the most productive game of his season. His eighth home run and a scorching line drive off a lefty were among his three hits. He also had a season-high five RBIs.
Why not ride the horse another day and see if Howard could begin one of those hot streaks that placed him among the most feared sluggers in baseball during the second half of the last decade?
"This gives Darin [Ruf] a chance against a lefthander," Sandberg said. "We have four righthanded pitchers in a row after that with another lefty the fifth day. After a big game like that and a good game, sometimes that's a good time to give a guy a break, make it a positive, and let him build on that against the righthanded pitching that is coming up after tonight's game."
What Sandberg said next was most interesting. The manager was asked if Ruf, who was added to the roster in the middle of last week, might continue to get starts at first base against lefthanders in the future.
"Yeah, if it happens to work," the manager said. "It's an opportunity to have a lineup like that, and if it produces that becomes an opportunity . . . to possibly get some consistency with the offense against righthanded and lefthanded pitching."
Two runs wasn't the result Sandberg was looking for, but Ruf at least provided one of them with a fourth-inning solo homer off lefty Jorge De La Rosa. The other came on Ben Revere's first career home run.
If Sandberg sticks with Ruf against lefties, the Phillies will have themselves a platoon situation. The Oakland A's have used that system quite effectively in recent years. Manager Bob Melvin platooned at five positions when the A's won their second straight American League West title last season and he's using it with similar success this season.
Hard-core Phillies fans know that the most productive player in that platoon system is Brandon Moss, a lefthanded-hitting first baseman who spent most of the 2011 season playing for Sandberg with the Phillies' triple-A Lehigh Valley affiliate.
There's nothing the Phillies can do about that mistake, but there is a way to get better at first base. Even with his single off Colorado's Rex Brothers on Monday, Howard was hitting only .212 with a .283 on-base percentage against lefthanders this season. He ranked in the bottom third among first basemen in average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS against lefthanded pitching, and it's not as if this a recent trend.
Since 2011, he has batted .200 with 164 strikeouts in 401 at-bats against lefties. Since 2012, he has hit .182 against lefties (42 for 231) with 11 home runs and 17 total extra-base hits. If Sandberg thinks it's time to take a look at somebody else against lefties, he should do it starting right now.
The manager knows it is a difficult decision because the Phillies are paying Howard $25 million and the first baseman is a proud man who worked hard to recover from the debilitating leg injury that cost him huge chunks of the last two seasons. Sandberg, however, is more interested in making the right decision for his players and his team.
"It's hard, but if it's effective and it works, maybe it's a positive for two players and maybe it's a positive for the team," Sandberg said. "But that's yet to be seen. Tonight is an opportunity to look at that."
Sandberg does not want to bench Howard, who hit into a double play during an eighth-inning pinch-hit appearance Tuesday, and the manager has actually been happy in a lot of ways with his first baseman.
"I think he has come a long way on the defensive side," the manager said. "I think he has gotten in better shape as we've gone along. He's moving around real good at first base. He has been a little bit inconsistent and possibly has gone out of the strike zone at times. I still say that he can hit a strike in the zone off a lefthanded pitcher or a righthanded pitcher, but he's gone a little bit out of the zone at times."
It's really up to Ruf rather than Howard to turn first base into a platoon situation. It was Howard who forced the trade of Jim Thome to the White Sox when he still had three years left on his deal. At the big-league level, Ruf is batting just .222 (20 for 90) with three doubles and five home runs against lefties. He is a .363 career hitter (180 for 496), however, against lefties in the minor leagues.
If Ruf can come close to duplicating those numbers, Sandberg will have no choice but to play him.
Year AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO AVG. OBP SLG. OPS
2004 9 1 0 0 0 0 0 5 .111 .111 .111 .222
2005 61 9 1 1 1 6 2 26 .148 .175 .246 .421
2006 197 55 5 1 16 45 22 76 .279 .364 .558 .923
2007 209 47 8 0 16 46 32 85 .225 .333 .493 .826
2008 237 53 6 3 14 49 23 96 .224 .294 .451 .746
2009 222 46 13 1 6 33 25 83 .207 .298 .356 .653
2010 193 51 8 0 12 39 17 61 .264 .333 .492 .826
2011 170 38 10 1 3 28 12 55 .224 .286 .347 .634
2012 98 17 2 0 6 18 5 45 .173 .226 .378 .604
2013 81 14 3 0 3 11 3 39 .173 .218 .321 .539
*2014 52 11 1 0 2 10 6 25 .212 .283 .346 .629
Career 1,529 342 57 7 79 285 147 596 .224 .300 .425 .785 * - Through Monday
Batting average against lefties this season.
Average against righthanders.
Career average against lefties.