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EWOOD, N.J. -- A night after Chase Utley made his triumphant return to the field, his infield partner and longtime teammate took a big step toward a homecoming of his own.
Ryan Howard began his rehabilitation assignment with Class A Lakewood on Thursday night at FirstEnergy Park. Sporting a No. 52 blue BlueClaws uniform, the big left-handed slugger went 2-for-4 with a sacrifice fly, three RBIs and a strikeout in five plate appearances out of the four-hole of Mickey Morandini's lineup.
He was the designated hitter on Thursday but will play first base on Friday as he continues his rehab assignment with Lakewood.
For Phillies fans, the return of the former National League Most Valuable Player can't come soon enough. But Howard wants to make sure he's ready following his rehab from surgery on his left Achilles in October and an infection in the heel in February that set his initial return back.
"I mean I've been patient for what is this, probably eight, nine months now. So another week, two weeks is not gonna kill me," Howard said. "You want to be back up there as soon as you can, but at the same time you want to make sure you take the proper precautions. So I'm not gonna try and rush myself back there just to get back there. I'm gonna make sure I'm good and ready to go."
Position players on rehab assignments have 20 days before they must be activated, barring any type of setback. If all goes according to plan, Howard would return later than July 18.
Thursday marked Howard's first time playing in an actual game since rupturing his Achilles while making the final out in Game 5 of October's National League Division Series.
But at this point, after lots of rehab and months of working out in Clearwater, Fla., Howard is no longer worried about his Achillies. Now, it's a matter of building strength in his left leg and getting into game situations, both on offense and defense.
One of the main things Howard hadn't done much of in Clearwater was run the bases. He said he did some mock baserunning in simulated games with Phillies outfielder Laynce Nix, who is also rehabbing there.
"The running portion was the biggest thing and I felt pretty good [on Thursday]," Howard said. "I didn't really think about [it], adrenaline kicked in on a few plays."
In each of his first three at-bats, Howard hit ground balls up the middle, to the right of second base. The first was a groundout to the shortstop, who was shifted to the right. The second two were singles, the latter of which didn't leave the infield. Howard hustled down the first-base line and beat the throw.
"I was able to turn it up and put some pressure on 'em," Howard said with a smile.
His fourth at-bat was his first against a left-hander. On a 1-2 count, Howard swung and missed on an 88-mph fastball from Mike Jefferson.
Then, with the bases loaded and out in the bottom of the ninth, Howard had a chance to win the game for Lakewood in his fifth and final at-bat. He didn't hit a walk-off, but working with a 3-1 count, he flew out to the warning track in left-center field, which was deep enough to score a run. Chris Duffy won the game with a single the very next at-bat.
Howard was happy with his approach at the plate.
"Just a little quick in my legs but that was to be expected cause this is my first situation playing in a game where it actually counts for something," he said. "The next few games or whatnot, just kind of settle in and let it all take over."
Hours before the game, Howard participated in infield drills and took ground balls with other BlueClaws infielders. He then took about 20 to 25 swings of batting practice. After taking the doughnut off his bat, following the first couple rounds of BP, he launched a couple balls over the fence in right-center field.
Many can't wait to see balls fly off his bat and over the fence at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies have struggled their way to a 36-42 record and are in last place in the National League East, nine games behind the first-place Nationals. They finally got their five-time All-Star second baseman back on Wednesday, but still await the return of their four-hole hitter in Howard and ace in Roy Halladay.
Philadelphia first basemen are hitting .261 with 11 home runs and 41 RBIs this season. Those aren't bad numbers, but Howard, who signed a five-year, $125 million extension in April 2010, has not hit less than 31 home runs or racked up fewer than 108 RBIs in any of the last six seasons.
Howard was with the Phillies for the day on Wednesday when Utley made his triumphant return with a home run in his first at-bat. Howard, a big smile on his face, was one of the many teammates who greeted Utley in the dugout.
Think that gave him even more of an itch to get back on the field?
"It was awesome," Howard said. "Just being there, being able to be around the atmosphere again of being in a big league ballpark. [The] fans, just everything. For Chase to go up there and hit a home run in his first at-bat, I'm not surprised. That's Chase. He has a thing for the moment I guess."
Howard should get his in the not-so-distant future.