By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report/Philadelphia Sunday Sun
At this time last season, Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard was rehabbing the Achilles tendon that he injured during the 2011 National League Division Series.
With Howard and second baseman Chase Utley out of the lineup for much of the first half of the 2012 season, the Phillies were in a deep hole from which they never recovered.
That was last year.
During spring training, Howard came out with a vengeance and looked like the Phils’ power hitter of old. The Phillies slugger batted .322 in Grapefruit League play, hit seven homeruns and had 16 runs batted in. He also had a .621 slugging percentage.
“I’m 100 percent ready to go,” Howard said. “As far as the injury is concerned, I’m not focused on it. I would hope that spring training showed that and so I’m ready. I felt good, I had a good spring training and I just have to carry it over.”
Playing in just 71 games last season, Howard batted just .219, but still drove in 56 runs and hit 14 homeruns. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said Ryan and Utley are an integral part of the Phillies lineup and a key to the team’s success in 2013.
“I think it’s very big for the fact that they are the two biggest run producers for our team,” said Phillies manager Charlie Manager. “I think having them back is very important. It always has been. The acquisitions that we made this year with Ben (Revere) and (third baseman) Michael Young makes us better and when we get Carlos Ruiz and (right fielder) Delmon Young our offense should really pick up.”
In team’s first two losses to the Atlanta Braves, Howard was a combined 0-for-8, but got a run batted on a ground out in the first game of the series.
There’s no doubt that Howard will have better days for the Phillies who need him to translate a productive spring into a season where the Phils produce runs, especially when they play teams like the Washington Nationals, which have a solid starting rotation, and the Atlanta Braves, a team that has one of the best bullpens in baseball.
Despite the return of Howard and Utley, the Phillies have been picked by most baseball experts to finish third behind the Nationals and Braves. Even with the losses earlier this week, Howard said the Phillies should not be discounted because of their experience as the dominant team in the division.
“We hear a lot of that talk. We’ve had experience winning and we’ve had experience being the underdog,” Howard said. “So all of that is all talk. Not to take anything away from the Nationals. Those guys had a great season last year. They won the division.
“That’s why we got to go out there and play the games. It’s not 2012 anymore, it’s 2013. Everybody’s got to go out there and handle our business.”
If there’s anything that the Phillies can take from what was a disappointing 2012 was that when Howard and Utley returned to the lineup in early July, the team was mired in last place.
After the All-Star Break, the Phillies finished the season 44-31 (.587) and went from last place to third and finished at .500 after being 14 games below .500 back in early July. Until late September, the Phillies were in the conversation for a wildcard berth.
Howard said if the team can stay healthy for an entire season, they will be in the mix in spite of their horrendous start in Atlanta.
“As long as we can stay healthy, I think we can do big things,” Howard said. “[With] myself being back, Chase, and (pitcher Roy) Halladay ,if guys just going out there and being themselves and doing what they do, then we’ll be alright.”