BOSTON — David Ortiz spotted Ryan Howard behind the batting cage at Fenway Park and beamed. The two hulking sluggers embraced, and Howard hoped he was peering into his future. Ortiz, 37, has maintained his power stroke deep into his 30s while Howard's numbers have waned before his 34th birthday.
The Phillies are betting on Howard being a productive player through at least age 36. The second season of his five-year, $125 million contract is characterized by a left knee injury that could linger for months.
Howard said the knee hurt Monday. But he decided he could play Monday after sitting Sunday. So Charlie Manuel inserted him into the lineup.
"You play hurt, you play injured to the best of your ability," Howard said. "Guys go out and play hurt, play injured. That's the part of your competitive nature. But it's about being smart about it, too. If it's something that continually bothers me to where it's, 'I can't go right now,' I'll let them know."
Both player and team are faced with a difficult situation. A lineup already missing Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz can not afford the loss of Howard. But if Howard's numbers continue to suffer while playing hurt, the decision could be forced.
Howard has inflammation in his left knee that was eased by a cortisone shot May 19. That injection, apparently, helped for mere days. The team was vague in diagnosing Howard, saying that various tests were inconclusive as to whether Howard had torn his meniscus. But head athletic trainer Scott Sheridan admitted it was possible.
Players can play through a torn meniscus. Cincinnati first baseman Joey Votto attempted that for two weeks last July before opting for arthroscopic surgery. Votto, at the time, was expected to miss four weeks. He was absent for 52 days.
Howard said he was not ready to consider that option. He did not want the injury to serve as an excuse for his poor play. (Then, he said, "it plays a factor with it being my push-off leg.") Howard's .719 OPS ranked 113th out of 168 qualified hitters entering play Monday. His $20 million salary in 2013 is 10th highest among position players.
Manuel admitted it might be easier to sit Howard if Utley and Ruiz were available. The manager was confident in Howard's ability, though.
"I'm convinced," Manuel said. "I think he's gonna break out of it and I think he has to keep grinding it out and stay with it. Do the best he possibly can. We have to stay with him because like I've always said, he is a guy that knocks in all the big runs for us."
Can he do it even on one leg?
"His leg is going to always be bothering him," Manuel said.
He had the option of using Howard as designated hitter Monday in American League play. But Delmon Young's defensive inadequacies made him the DH. Howard and his injured knee manned first base.
"Right now I'm looking at it day to day," Howard said, "and trying to run with the good days."