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It’s Officially Summer: Ryan Howard Time

National League's Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies watches his hit during the first round of the MLB baseball Home Run Derby in St. Louis, Monday, July 13, 2009. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)Watching Ryan Howard hit before the All-Star break is an experience.  It often starts with an April slump, a May pick-me-up, and a June breakthrough.

Watching Ryan Howard hit after the All-Star break is something to behold.  It brings forth a sizzling July, a sultry August, and a corona-like September.

Howard’s early season struggles are well documented, as he is normally as cold as an April night game.  Since his promotion to the Phillies in 2004, the two halves are as contrastive as night and day.  A .255 average coupled with an .879 OPS is hardly monumental.  The power numbers stay steady (102 HR in 356 career games before the break), but it’s obvious that Howard is a native of the steamy summers of St. Louis.

It takes a while for him to really heat up.  His post-break numbers are borderline absurd; a .302 average, a 1.050 OPS, and an average of 24 home runs and 64 RBI’s in his four full second-halves in the big leagues. Big Brown has an MVP Trophy in his case because of his late-season heroics, and nearly won another last year with that same approach.

Two thousand nine has been no different.  Howard is hitting .257, with 22 homers and 67 RBI’s as we move toward the final months.  They are modest totals, which any slugger would gladly take. It’s now we should expect to see the fireworks.

As Phillies fans, it certainly feels like we take the big guy for granted.  We’ve become accustomed to his powerful swing, his high, towering drives, and his keen eye around this time of year. It’s time to count on that again.

With the Mets, Braves, and Marlins all gearing up for an exciting race to the finish, the Phillies need the same production from their slugging first baseman as in previous years. He has single-handedly put this franchise on his back for playoff chase on more than one occasion. Is it too much to ask for that one more time?

Howard may need to bring his A-game for myriad reasons.  Chase Utley, while an all-around wizard, has notoriously struggled in the second half.  His average dips 13 points, and his slugging percentage takes a 50-point hit down the stretch.  Pedro Feliz has also struggled in the late months; he’s just a .244 career hitter during July, August, and September/October.

On top of those who usually scuffle, the problems the Phillies now face factor in.  A suspect bench provides little help offensively in the late innings, the bullpen has been in-flux for much of the year and is not as steady as last, and the coaching staff is in a quandary over what to make of the starting rotation.

In previous campaigns, the Phils have not had the luxury of being top dog. Now, the tables have turned, so it’s imperative they learn to play with the lead, not search for it. A new predicament looms large at the top; not only are they the hunted because of the rings they wear, but also because the three teams below them are ready to strike.

So, as we sip our Coronas and enjoy the warmth of the summer sun, that’s where Ryan Howard comes in.  We need that big second half again Big Fella. Do you have another one in you?

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