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ENTOWN, Pa. -- Throughout the first six games of his rehab assignment, Ryan Howard has spoken much about settling in and readjusting to game situations after such a long layoff.
It looks like he's well on his way.
Playing in his third game for Triple-A Lehigh Valley on Tuesday night, Howard put together the most productive of his rehab game performances. Not only did he play seven innings at first base for the first time, but the big left-handed slugger also launched his first home run. Howard, who is working his way back from left Achilles surgery, went 2-for-3 with the two-run blast and four RBIs.
The plan is for Howard to take Wednesday off and return to Lehigh Valley for more games on Thursday and Friday, when he could play back-to-back games in the field for the first time during his rehab. The 20-day clock on his rehab assignment does not run out until July 18. The struggling Phillies, who lost their sixth straight game on Tuesday, 11-1, to the Mets, could use him as soon as possible.
"A lot of it's just getting used to the game speed and just kind of getting the reads off bats defensively and getting my feel and timing back defensively," said Howard, who is 7-for-17 with a home run and nine RBIs in the six Minor League games. "Hitting-wise, it's just kind of settling in, letting all the nerves get out and just doing all that and now kind of getting back into the flow of things."
Tuesday marked the first time Howard played more than five innings in the field. The ball came his way a few times, but most of his action involved routine plays. He said afterward he felt good.
But the signature moment of Tuesday's game came in Howard's second at-bat. Facing former Mets starter John Maine, whom he was 6-for-24 against with two homers in the Majors, Howard jumped ahead in the count, 3-1. Maine left a low fastball over the plate and Howard, as the pitcher put it, "just hit the tar out of it," to the opposite way in left-center field.
"He gave me a thrill there watching that from the third-base coach's box," Lehigh Valley manager Ryne Sandberg said. "That's vintage Ryan Howard driving the ball like that to left-center field."
"It's a great sign for him," hitting coach Sal Rende said. "That means he's not trying to force things. He's just kinda letting it happen, letting the game come to him. Obviously, he's one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball when he's able to do that."
Howard added a two-run single that bounced off the glove of Russell Branyan, the first baseman for the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees. At that point, he had accounted for all four of the IronPigs' runs. He was pulled for a defensive replacement after the seventh inning.
Coming in for early batting practice, as Howard did on Tuesday, appeared to have helped. The former National League Most Valuable Player said he came in for early work to get his legs moving better on his swing. Even Maine said he thought he noticed a difference in Howard's timing from Monday to Tuesday.
"His lower half and upper half weren't working together," said Rende, who also coached Howard when the slugger was working his way through the Phillies' farm system. "He was kind of separating the two and kind of not using his lower half good enough. When he gets everything together, the results are usually pretty good."