Phillies sit Howard for Ruf; platoon on the way?
Ryne Sandberg would not say the word. He did everything but label the current situation at first base a platoon.
A father played catch with his son Tuesday afternoon on the Citizens Bank Park grass. This was hours before Ryan Howard struck out with the winning run on third base and one out in the ninth inning; before San Francisco chose to intentionally walk Chase Utley in the 11th to face Howard, who grounded out; before manager Ryne Sandberg benched Howard on Wednesday for Darin Ruf.
"Here comes the knuckleball," Howard said.
Darian, 13, caught it, and smiled. He tossed the ball back to his father.
"Raise your elbow," Howard told him.
There are no guarantees for Howard beyond the $60 million owed to him after the 2014 season. The Phillies will pay him; they are not obligated to play him. Sandberg, speaking carefully Wednesday, did not use the word platoon, but it was implied.
"I know what he can do," Sandberg said. "I've seen him for 100 games. I know what he can do. I think it's important to see what a guy like Darin Ruf can do also, going forward."
Howard "absolutely" believes he can be productive again. But, as the 34-year-old erstwhile slugger's numbers plummet, he seeks perspective in moments like Tuesday afternoon's catch.
"I know some people might misconstrue this comment, but baseball is a game," Howard said before the Phillies lost, 3-1, to the Giants, who started Madison Bumgarner, a tough lefty. "Yeah, I get paid a lot of money to play it, but it's a game. You go out and see little kids doing it because it's a game. You have to keep things in perspective.
"Regardless of what I'm doing out here, I have a beautiful wife, a son, a baby on the way. You have to take a look at life and have to look at it for what it is.
"I love playing baseball, and I want to be the best that I can be and compete on a regular basis," Howard said. "As far as my career is concerned, you have good years and you have off years. The year isn't over yet."
It is not, although the Phillies will prioritize the future during this season's final two months. It is a future that may not include Howard, should the team decide to release him this fall.
Sandberg sounded like a man ready to find Howard's replacement.
"When the game starts, it's about winning the game and being productive and chipping in and doing the part and doing something to help win a game," Sandberg said. "If that means playing somebody else there, and there's production right away, that's trying to win a baseball game."
In Ruf's first start since being called up from triple-A Lehigh Valley on Tuesday, the first baseman grounded out with two outs and Carlos Ruiz on third, struck out, and laid down a sacrifice bunt.
Howard's slugging percentage is .377, which ranked 121st of 162 qualified hitters. He is hitting .188 at Citizens Bank Park. He has two extra-base hits in his last 100 plate appearances.
The first baseman is a former MVP and the highest-paid position player in baseball this season. That makes this juggle a delicate one, and Sandberg spoke with caution.
A Phillies public relations official, expecting questions about Howard's status, prepped the manager in the dugout tunnel before his daily session with reporters.
The manager said he would decide his lineup on a "day-to-day basis." Howard's contract, he said, will not dictate playing time.
"Well, it's also about wins and losses out here," Sandberg said.
Howard stressed patience.
"There's always expectations," Howard said. "It's easy for people to put expectations on you, because they're not the ones going out there and doing it. I have expectations for myself. And, yeah, it's been a disappointing year."
Both Sandberg and Howard pointed to his RBI totals. Howard's 60 RBIs are tied for sixth in the league. That is misleading. Howard has batted more times (224) with runners on base than any hitter in baseball. The 305 runners were third behind Casey McGehee of the Miami Marlins and Albert Pujols of the Los Angeles Angels.
Howard, though, has scored a runner in just 14.8 percent of those opportunities. That conversion rate ranked 96th among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances.
"When he's hot, he carried us for a couple of series just by swinging the bat," Sandberg said. "Boy, if that would be something that happened more often, that would be a very good thing."
For now, that amounts to wishful thinking.