Howard's eventful day ends well
Appearance at Eagles game causes stir, but Game 2 NLCS win erased all problems
PHILADELPHIA -- For most of the afternoon, the chatter amongst Philadelphia fans was about who was on the Eagles' sideline (Ryan Howard) and who wasn't (Michael Vick). With the Phillies down 1-0 in the National League Championship Series, Howard's appearance at the Eagles game -- he stood on the field behind one end zone with Fox sideline reporter Tony Siragusa and was interviewed by announcers Daryl Johnston and Kenny Albert -- was criticized by some fans who thought he should have been focused on baseball, not football.
"I'm a rebel," Howard joked after the Phillies' 6-1 win against the Giants about being at the football game. "I'm a reckless renegade."
Forget of course that Howard was at Lincoln Financial Field, which is near Citizens Bank Ballpark -- literally across the street -- or that Howard's appearance came more than seven hours before Game 2, or that he left the football game in time to be back at the ballpark for all scheduled team activities. When Philadelphia fans get worked up about something, such as being down in a playoff series, it's difficult to convince them the end of the world isn't coming.
But as usual, as chatter often goes in Philadelphia, the anger subsided once the Eagles and Phillies both won, and Howard, who entered Sunday's game with just a .686 OPS in the playoffs, broke out for his best game so far this postseason. In the win, Howard was 2-for-3 with an all-important walk.
"I might just have to [go to another Eagles game]," Howard joked. "I might have to get on the field and call some plays."
It all seems so silly now. No amount of worrying and no amount of early batting practice was going to prepare Howard for facing Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez, who had mostly dominated Howard in previous confrontations (3-for-14 with seven strikeouts). For that reason, Howard's emergence in this series came in the unlikeliest of circumstances.
There was nothing that could replicate Sanchez's calculated wildness or his fastball that often seemingly disappeared for Howard when it reached the strike zone. There was no amount of video that would allow him to be more patient when Sanchez's pitches, some so tantalizing, zoomed out of the strike zone. Howard simply had to show up at game time, step in the box and hope for the best.
And Howard gave his best. His first-inning walk against Sanchez -- a great eight-pitch at-bat in which he fouled off three pitches and worked the count full -- helped set up Philadelphia's first run. Twice in the at-bat Howard said Sanchez's fastballs seemed to disappear. But Howard vowed to be patient.
"I was able to fight [some pitches] off," Howard said.
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Howard's walk loaded the bases, and eventually Chase Utley scored on Jimmy Rollins' walk. Howard had never seen more than six pitches in any of his previous 15 plate appearances against Sanchez. Yet, in his first at-bat against him on Sunday, in arguably his biggest at-bat of the night, Howard's patience proved key.
"I was just trying to see some pitches," Howard said.
In Howard's next two at-bats he hit a line-drive double into the left-center field gap in the third and then hit a line-drive single to center in the fifth. For the moment, all concerns about Howard's struggles or any worries about where he spent his afternoon have dissipated. Howard's night might have been the most encouraging sign for the previously slumping Phillies lineup.
"I don't really look at Ryan and think he needs encouragement," Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth said. "He's one of the game's best players. It's a matter of time before he makes his mark."
Of course Howard still has his weak points. In the seventh inning, he struck out against Giants left-handed reliever Jeremy Affeldt. Coupled with Howard's three strikeouts on Saturday, two of which came against San Francisco ace Tim Lincecum, Howard can still be prone to swinging and missing.
"When you face 'The Freak' he'll make you look bad once in awhile," Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino said. "We get [Howard] swinging the bat, that's a big part of the offense."
The good night all around for Philadelphia teams and for Howard eliminated the worst possibility -- the first baseman goes hitless, and both the Eagles and Phillies lose. Then he likely would have had to answer questions about whether his appearance at the football game had been a distraction.
Instead, Howard joked with reporters while they waited by his locker.
When asked what he was doing with Siragusa, Howard quipped, "Kicking it."
"You guys are terrible," Howard sarcastically told reporters as they continued to prowl by his locker while he was changing. Eventually Howard, after meticulously putting on his suit and tie and perfecting his tie, sat down and spoke with reporters about his eventful day.
Howard said he was looking forward to seeing his friend and mentor Barry Bonds in San Francisco.
"That will be fun," he said. "He might talk some trash."
After several minutes, Howard finished his interview and headed toward the team bus.
In all, the night had been a total touchdown.
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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