Friday, August 27, 2010

The Big Question

Just last week, the Phillies were emitting a familiar feeling, demoralizing opponents' bullpens, putting up runs and winning games in every conceivable way. They vaulted past San Francisco and St. Louis to take the lead in the Wild Card and were breathing down the necks of the Braves.

A little more than a week later, the Phillies are still right there, just a half game behind the Giants in the Wild Card and three games behind Atlanta in the division, the but that feeling of sudden invincibility that this team has displayed the past three seasons in the 2nd half is waning. The Phillies just got swept by the laughably terrible Astros at home. In four games. They aren't hitting at all. And they've reverted back to the team that has struggled to find any consistency at the plate most of this year.

With everyone finally healthy, it was expected that the Phils would begin to pull away and make their annual late-season push — just as they did in 2007, 2008 and 2009. I still think that can happen and will happen … but not as sure as I've been he past few years. Why? Because, lest we forget, the Phillies have successfully gone on these tears in late August all the through September largely on the considerable shoulders of Ryan Howard.

From August (actually July, as well) on, Howard typically puts this offense on his back and carries the Phillies to the playoffs. For his career, he is a .279 hitter in the month of August and a .314 hitter in September (his highest average of any month). He's hit 52 home runs in September (more than any other month) and 44 in August (third behind only July). August is when he begins to heat up, setting the stage to be the game's most dangerous hitter in September. For his career, his numbers are off charts in September: .426 on-base percentage, .686 slugging percentage and 1.112 OPS.

In 2007, Howard hit 18 home runs and drove in 50 runs in September and August, leading the Phils to the NL East title. In 2008, he had 11 home runs and 32 RBIs as he hit .352 with a .422 OBP, .852 slugging percentage and 1.274 OPS in September to help spark the Phils to a World Championship. And last season, Howard batted .299 in August, driving in 33 runs and hitting 11 bombs before hitting .303 in September with 8 homers and 30 RBIs as the Phils set the stage to return to the World Series.

Essentially, Ryan Howard has been this team's offense down the stretch. But can you really count on him going on one of those late-season tears this season? He was just out for nearly month, and since his return looks completely lost at the plate. He's flailing at breaking balls, missing fastballs, striking out like crazy, something he hasn't done nearly as much this season. He looks like a player that has missed considerable time, like a player that may take a while to get his timing and confidence back.

I'm not saying he can't do it or won't do it. Like I said, I expect him to. Ryan Howard is by no means a perfect player, but he's a guy who has improved every single year, and a guy who has come up big when his team has really needed him the most since day one. But it just may not happen given the amount of time he's missed.

This is usually when Ryan Howard carries the Phillies to the playoffs. The time when he goes on a tear so impressive that he enters the MVP discussions. But with September right around the corner, Howard is just looking to get his bearings so he has a chance to get to that point. Usually by this time, he's not concerned about making contact, he's concerned with how far the balls he hits will travel.

Hopefully Howard can adjust quickly from the long layoff — and Chase Utley for that matter. Because the way the Phillies are hitting right now and the way they've hit most of the season, they're going to need him. They need Ryan Howard to do the heavy lifting once again. The question is, will the time he missed due to his ankle injury let him?

BallHype: hype it up!

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