Howard enjoying his run with surprising Phillies

May 21st, 2016

The biggest star remains from those Phillies teams that dominated opponents much of the previous decade. Actually, there is Ryan Howard, along with suddenly rejuvenated teammate Carlos Ruiz, but only one of them won a National League Most Valuable Player Award and promoted foot-long sandwiches.

It wasn't Ruiz, by the way.

With apologies to that Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton and Greg Luzinski group of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the glory days for the Phillies involved that stretch when they finished first or second each season for eight consecutive years through 2011. Howard and Ruiz joined a clubhouse back then with the likes of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell, Cole Hamels, Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, Jamie Moyer and Brad Lidge.

They're all gone. Not Ruiz, though, who lost his starting catching job last season only to regain it this year at 37 with consistency behind the plate and an impressive enough bat. It's just that, while Ruiz was good during the Phillies' run, Howard was great, and at 36, the 6-foot-4 and 250-pounder still trots to first base more often than not when the Phillies take the field.

During those years, when the Phillies had another league MVP winner, several owners of multiple Gold Gloves, players grabbing awards such as Rolaids Man of the Year, Cy Young and Roberto Clemente, did Howard think he would be the last of those Phillies standouts still playing?

"Nah, not really. No," Howard said the other day, shrugging over the fact that he is in the final year of his contract with the only Major League team that he has known since he won National League Rookie of the Year honors in 2005. "You always have to remember that, when it comes to players leaving a team, that's the change aspect of the game. As for me still being here when compared to those other guys, I don't think you ever look that far down the road to envision that kind of a situation. It is what it is."

Here's what it isn't: Howard isn't that MVP guy anymore who led the Major Leagues in 2006 with 58 homers and 149 RBIs while batting .313. His offensive decline began after he ruptured his Achilles tendon while making the final out of Game 5 of the NLDS against the Cardinals in 2011. Not only does his batting average continue to suffer these days, but this left-handed slugger -- who once was an everyday player -- mostly goes against right-handed pitchers.

That said, here's what else you need to know about Howard, and it's splendid news for fans who still proudly wear his No. 6 jersey: He has retained the old pop in the bat to lead the team in home runs with eight. He even became his vintage self in late April after he whacked a walk-off shot against the Indians for the sixth game-winning homer of his dozen-plus years in the Major Leagues. It makes you wonder if his career is on the verge of kicking into another gear, with more gigantic moments to come.

"Yeah, why not?" Howard said, bursting into a smile. "I've done well in big situations, but it starts with wanting to be in those situations. It's something I've done over the course of my career, but right now, I'm just focused on this year, because I've always been a 'You cross that bridge when you get to it' kind of person. I'm not looking that far ahead, so that's why I'm focused on this year. I'm focused on the day to day. Go out here and play this particular game. Try to win."

No problem there. Howard's current teammates are young, talented and threatening to turn promise into reality as well as that Phillies bunch that managed a World Series championship in 2008 during the midst of capturing the NL East for five years in a row. The modern-day Phils have center fielder Odubel Herrera, 24, who has replaced Rollins as the team's hitting machine in the leadoff spot. Joining Howard as a power guy is 23-year-old third baseman Maikel Franco. The pitching staff has quality arms, stretching from 22-year-old Aaron Nola and 23-year-old Vince Velasquez in the starting rotation to old-timer Jeanmar Gomez (you know, at 28) as the closer of the bullpen.

Thanks to those youngsters and others, the Phillies are masters of one-run games (14-3), with more victories in that category than anybody in baseball. They're also undefeated in extra innings at 4-0.

Add all of that to Howard's leadership, and you have the most surprising team in baseball by a bunch. Consider this: The Phillies had the Major League's worst record last year at 63-99, but they've spent this season challenging the powerful Nationals and Mets for the top spot of the NL East.

"I still go out there and try to play and do my role in contributing to us winning, but one of the other things I try to do is help these guys keep their heads straight and give them knowledge when I can if they ask for it," Howard said. "It can be different situational stuff. Stuff that might take place in the game. Knowing how to play the game without having to get a sign. It could be a situation where, hey, if you're a guy who might bunt, you might want to just go ahead and move a guy over [on the bases] without getting the sign.

"You just take the knowledge you have and pass it on."

Howard has done so without bobbling his message.

Just check the standings.