Ryan Howard was dressed and packed up for four days off and quietly made his way for the exit. There was no one stopping Howard to give him a travel itinerary for the All-Star Game in Minnesota or media waiting to talk to him before he departed.
What was there to say?
Howard had just finished an 0-for-12 homestand against the Nationals in which he struck out five times and reached base just once. This came during a month of July in which he was batting .106 (5 for 47) with one homer, five RBIs and 14 strikeouts.
The problem is, it’s not just July. Though he has 15 homers and 56 RBIs, Howard has one homer since June 19 — a span of 24 games and 101 plate appearances. This stretch of games has not only been the worst of his career but also the most frustrating for the Phillies since he joined the club.
The Phillies went 9-15 during Howard’s June/July swoon, which includes a season-best five-game winning streak, but made no headway in getting out of the basement of the NL East.
Through it all, Howard has been healthy and in the lineup. After missing 173 games over the last two seasons with injuries stemming from his ruptured Achilles, Howard has appeared in all but two games this season. He’s started 89 of the Phillies’ 95 games in which he has batted in the heart of manager Ryne Sandberg’s lineup.
Still, it’s been a struggle.
There has been a 20-game homerless skid and an eight-game RBI-less slide. There also have been four streaks between 11 and 13 at-bats in which he went hitless, as well as a documented experiment with his well-emulated batting stance.
Last week Howard tinkered with his stance by lowering his hands before taking a cut and responded with an RBI single. But since the experiment began, Howard is 2 for 26 with nine strikeouts, and his hands are slowly creeping back up to where they were.
“He’s working on feeling comfortable and a comfortable stance. He’s trying to find a comfort zone with his approach and stance,” Sandberg explained. “That is causing some inconsistency and it's tough for him to get into a groove.”
Actually, grooves have been tough to come by for Howard since he ruptured his Achilles in Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS. Better yet, his career is best summed up simply by before-the-injury and after-the-injury.
Before, Howard averaged 46 homers, 139 RBIs and 193 strikeouts per 162 games with a .275 batting average, .368 on-base percentage and .560 slugging percentage. After? He’s averaged 27 homers and 103 RBIs per 162 games, with 206 strikeouts and a .234 batting average, .304 on-base percentage and .420 slugging,
The 27 homers and 103 RBIs averages are nothing to scoff at, but lately Howard seems unlikely to sustain them.
So where is the silver lining — if any — with Howard holding down the cleanup spot in the Phillies’ lineup? Is there any benefit at all to Sandberg's sending him out there game after game?
For one, Howard is much better in the second half of the season and a significantly better player in September. Nearly 21 percent of Howard’s 326 career homers have come in the last month of the season, by far the best in any month of his career.
Also, Chase Utley and Marlon Byrd, the players that hit in front and behind Howard in the lineup have had good seasons. Whether this is because of Howard’s presence is tough to prove, though it doesn’t seem like a coincidence.
Regardless, Howard’s success in September happened before the injury, when the Phillies had significant ballgames. With the way the Phillies are going this year, meaningful September baseball doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.
It also doesn’t appear to be on the horizon until Howard returns to some semblance of his old form.