CLEARWATER, Fla. - It looked like the Ryan Howard of old. The sweet swing. The bat drop. A slight gaze at the baseball that flew off his bat.
Howard's home run - which seemed to hang for an eternity before dropping over the right-field fence - was his first of the spring. The at-bat in the fourth inning of Friday's 2-1 win over Tampa Bay was a glimmer of hope that Howard might return to form after a lost season.
He pulled the first-pitch change-up, and the ball carried against the wind. Howard saw the pitch coming. Rays righthander Chris Archer struck him out with the pitch in the first inning. Howard said he had a good pass at it.
"I feel like I was seeing the ball a lot better," Howard said. "Posture was good. So things I've been working on now are starting to come to."
According to Baseball Reference, Howard pulled just two of his 23 home runs last season. The mark was a 45 percent drop-off from 2013 and a 15 percent drop from 2010.
"He's looked the most comfortable the last couple of days as far as finding an approach, and I think it clicked with him today," manager Ryne Sandberg said. "It's something that I think he can stay with. And it's all right for him to pull the ball."
Sandberg has stressed that his lineup will not be built around power. His team has consistently tried this spring to bunt for base hits. The manager said he is not going to wait around for a home run. Howard, whose slugging percentage dropped in four of the last five seasons, said he is going to "go out there and do what I can do."
"The approach is try to put a good swing on the ball," Howard said. "If I can get extra-base hits, home runs, whatever I can do to try to help get those guys in, we've been doing a great job of being able to go out and execute."
Along with his home run, Howard shined with his defense on Friday. He chased down a fly ball in foul territory in the fifth. He later scooped up a hard-hit grounder to his right side. Sandberg said the first baseman is getting "a ton of work" on his defense.
"Body has been feeling good. Legs have been feeling good. We've had a good workload over the course of spring training," Howard said. "I'm happy with where I am right now. Happy with my weight. Happy with how my legs are holding up. I feel pretty good."