Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Ryan Howard
The red box indicates where Howard's homerun
landed 461 feet away from home plate.

AutoTrader received some unexpected publicity on Tuesday, June 20 at Citizens Bank Park when, after New York Yankees starter Mike Mussina easily retired the first two Phillies hitters, Bobby Abreu singled and Pat Burrell walked to bring up Ryan Howard, the best first baseman in baseball (Albert Pujols being on the disabled list). Howard sat out the previous game as left-hander Randy Johnson got the start in an eventual 4-2 loss for the Yankees.

Mussina tossed Howard a first-pitch fastball, and Howard let the pitch drift into the strike zone before an effortless flick of the wrists sent the baseball 461 feet into the upper deck in right field -- the first occurrence of its kind at Citizens Bank Park -- and just over the AutoTrader advertisement. Howard's homerun was reminiscient of May 7, 2006, when Barry Bonds' 713th career homerun caromed off of the facade of the McDonalds sign (which has since been the AutoTrader sign) hanging just below the upper deck.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, Howard's night was just beginning, as he hit a two-run homerun to left-centerfield to break the 3-3 tie in the fourth inning. Mussina showed Howard respect during his next at-bat by intentionally walking him with first base open following a Pat Burrell double that just barely missed clearing the right field fence for a homerun. Ron Villone and Scott Proctor ran into trouble in the bottom of the seventh, when Chase Utley was hit by a pitch and Pat Burrell walked. New York manager Joe Torre, in an effort to play to Howard's weaknesses, brought in left-hander Mike Myers, who is specifically brought into games to get one or two left-handed batters out, as is evidenced by his 13 innings in 27 appearances (and an 0.69 ERA).

Ryan Howard
Howard was 3-4 with 7 RBI on June 20.

Howard took the 1-0 pitch from Myers and snuck it down the right-field line, driving in the two baserunners, and rumbling into third base for his first triple of the year. The two runs driven in on the hit brought Howard's RBI total for the night to seven, and his batting average inched ever closer to .300.

He was given one more chance to put the Phillies on his back and power his way past the Yankees in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs and two runners on -- Utley and David Dellucci got two singles off of Mariano Rivera in his second inning of relief -- but swung at the first pitch and weakly grounded out to end the game, a 9-7 loss for Philadelphia, which saw its normally airtight bullpen deflate, allowing five runs in four innings.

The line for Howard: 3-4 (.750), 2 HR, 1 3B, 7 RBI, 1 BB, 2 R, 12 total bases.

The line for the others: 7-32 (.218), 1 2B, 3 BB, 7K, 5 R, 11 total bases.

Player Team Votes
Albert Pujols 1,777,968
Carlos Delgado 700,771
Nomar Garciaparra 497,585
Lance Berkman 486,581
Ryan Howard 459,677

With his MVP-caliber night, Howard moved into first in the Major Leagues with 66 RBI, and tied Albert Pujols for the Major League lead in homeruns at 25. Yet, the 6'4" 250-pound first baseman is barely a whisper in All-Star voting: fifth place behind Albert Pujols, Carlos Delgado, Nomar Garciaparra, and Lance Berkman.

For the Phillies, in the meantime, the struggle continues. The starting pitching has only turned in two quality starts in nine games dating back to June 10 (Lidle against the Nationals on the 10th and Myers against the Yankees on the 19th). Chase Utley is 18-for-76 (.236) in the month of June, and Jimmy Rollins isn't much better at 21-for-84 (.250). The entire team has played sloppy defense (yes, including Aaron Rowand) nearly all month, and it seems that when the Phillies are clicking on all cylinders in one facet of their game, they're off on the other two (the facets being offense, defense, and pitching). On Tuesday, the offense was clicking, but the pitching and defense was not. In comparison, the Phillies were clicking on all cylinders in their win over the Yankees on Monday despite scoring only four runs.

A cause for the inconsistency may be the youth movement that Gillick has initiated during the season, highlighted by the promotion of left-hander Cole Hamels to the Major League club. Hamels, however, has struggled in his last two starts, losing both games and giving up 10 runs in 8.2 innings pitched. Journeyman catcher/infielder Chris Coste needed thirteen at-bats to record his first Major League hit and RBI, and currently sits on a .125 batting average. Comparably, Chris Roberson is only hitting .063 in sixteen at-bats.

Assuming the Mets go 46-46 for the rest of the season.
Vs. Mets Record for remainder Winning Percentage
10-0 36-45 .444
9-1 38-43 .469
8-2 40-41 .493
7-3 42-39 .518
6-4 44-37 .543
5-5 46-35 .567
4-6 48-33 .592
3-7 50-31 .617
2-8 52-29 .641
1-9 54-27 .667
0-10 56-25 .691

The inconsistency of the team and the frustrating ways in which they lose have Charlie Manuel on the proverbial hot seat, but general manager Pat Gillick defended Manuel, stating, "It's the old story that he can't go out and play for them. Basically, there has been inconsistency. Pitching sets the tone for the club. The games we've played with the Mets and Tampa Bay, our guys have been behind the 8-ball from the get go. Our pitching has got them behind the first inning. Our guys are always feeling like they are fighting back. That's sort of the situation. If you have good pitching, then you have a different situation."

The 35-36 Phillies have sixteen games left before the All-Star break, when the team will be examined through and through, at which point Gillick will determine if the team is a contender or a pretender. At 9.5 games behind the first-place New York Mets, the National League East division is certainly not clinched yet, but the margin of error is getting thinner with each game the Phillies give away. With ten head-to-head games against the Mets in August, the Phillies need to ideally win 6-7 of them while playing better baseball than the Mets for the remainder of the season.

For a team that is sinking by the minute, Howard continues to throw life preservers, but as the season wears on, the water will continue to rise.