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Howard remains confident in quest to regain form

Slugger's return to health, production vital to success of Phillies' offense

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Ryan Howard answered questions with questions Saturday afternoon at Bright House Field.

There were plenty for Howard, who has been limited to 151 games the past two seasons because of left leg injuries. He has hit a combined .244 with 25 home runs, 99 RBIs and a .752 OPS in that span, and coincidentally or not the Phillies were 77-63 (.550) when he started games and 77-107 (.418) when he did not.

How will this year be different than the last two?

"How do I think it'll be different? My leg feels a lot better."

What is he capable of doing?

"Everything. What do you think I'm capable of? Are you asking me if I'm capable of hitting 40-plus home runs? Absolutely."

How about 58, which he hit in 2006?

"Absolutely," he said. "I did it once. Why not? Can't doubt yourself. If I doubt myself, nobody else will believe in me. I feel I'm capable of hitting 58 home runs. I feel that I'm capable of doing that every year. It's just a matter of going out there and let the game come to me. I remember after hitting 58, people were saying to hit 70. You never know what may happen."

Howard's presence in the Phillies lineup remains crucial to the offense's success, a popular topic of discussion since the offseason.

But can he stay in the Phillies lineup? He spoke optimistically last spring about his health, only to succumb to a left meniscus injury that required season-ending surgery in July. He said Saturday his leg is stronger and pain free, and he believes a healthier body will bring back the production that made him one of the more feared power hitters in baseball for years.

"I feel like I can play 162 games," Howard said. "Now that I have two legs, I'm feeling better and I'm able to hop around on the field, my swing is coming back to where I want it to be. That's kind of my mantra. Getting two legs has allowed me to get stable in the batter's box, where I want to be. I can work on my approach and go from there."

Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg indicated Howard could play anywhere from 140 to 150 games, if healthy. That would allow him time to rest to keep strong throughout the season.

But even before Howard's suffered a torn left Achilles in Game 5 of the 2011 National League Division Series, his performance had started to decline. He carried a .931 OPS in '09, an .859 OPS in 2010 and an .835 OPS in 2011 before .718 and .784 marks in '12 and '13, respectively.

He also has struggled against left-handers. His .604 OPS the past three seasons ranks 202nd out of 213 qualifying hitters in baseball. That must improve for Sandberg to keep him in the lineup on a consistent basis against lefties.

But make no mistake: Howard will be given a chance to succeed against them. If he is struggling in April, do not expect to see Sandberg go to a straight platoon. The Phillies are paying Howard $125 million to be the heart of their lineup. They will give him every opportunity to succeed.

"In the perfect world, he hits right-handers and is effective and does some damage against left-handed pitching," Sandberg said. "Now I get somebody else in there, possibly a right-handed bat, to give him a day off. That's what I'm talking about. … Now, if there's some constant struggles and I need to make a change, I mean that's for the betterment of the team. But I want it the other way. I want him to hit everybody and be a presence in the middle of that lineup and then give him a [break] every now and then to keep him strong throughout the full season."

"Do I fear that? No," Howard said when asked about a potential platoon at first base. "I don't think about it. You can think about that for me, though. … Why would I think about it? That's negative. If I think negative, if I think I can't hit lefties, I might as well not go out there at all."

Howard, who is about 10-15 pounds lighter than last season, believes improved health will help him against lefties because a stronger left leg will allow him to be more stable in the batter's box. He also said he plans to study more video, which he has not utilized as much as others in the past.

Maybe those things will help.

If so, the Phillies believe the offense can be productive again. They finished first or second in the league in scoring from 2005-10 before finishing seventh in 2011, eighth in '12 and 13th in '13. If the Phillies plan to return to the postseason in '14, they certainly will need to improve upon last season's performance.

"For the guys that were here last year and the guys that have been here, yeah, you can say that was rock bottom," Howard said. "When one thing doesn't go right, all of a sudden it's done, it's over. When things don't go the way they used to go it's done, it's over. I was watching the Winter Olympics and Shaun White didn't win the half pipe. Shaun White is done. The man had a bad run. That doesn't mean he's done. We've had a bad couple years and had injuries and all that stuff, but I don't think it's over. People are entitled to their opinions and what not and that's fine, but it's up to us to go out there and show them otherwise and go out and play our game and do what we do."

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for

Philadelphia Phillies, Ryan Howard