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Hard to imagine Phillies winning unless Howard snaps out of slump

PHILADELPHIA -- Just to the left of the 374-foot marker in left-center field at Citizen's Bank Park, sandwiched between advertisements for Southwest Airlines and Budweiser, is a sign that brings in no money but may be just as valuable to helping the Phillies cash in this World Series. It is of a microphone between the letters HK, and it is commemorating late Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas, who passed away earlier this season. For the fans and the team, it serves as a reminder of the man whose distinct baritone was the voice of the team for nearly four decades. For Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, it is something else: his latest target in an ongoing effort to shake a puzzling and powerful slump.

During batting practice before Game 5 on Monday night, Phillies hitting coach Milt Thompson pointed to the sign and in an effort to remind Howard to try using the entire field, told his struggling slugger, "You're going to hit one to the HK sign today." After Philadelphia's 8-6 win. Thompson shrugged his shoulders and said with a chuckle. "I was wrong."

It was easy for Thompson to smile on Monday after another of his hitters, Chase Utley, smacked two more home runs to give him a record-tying five in the Series and lead the Phillies long-awaited offensive outburst to victory. But as Thompson well knows, the ongoing slump of Howard's remains no laughing matter. As the series shifts to New York, all signs point to it continuing. Not only did Howard not hit the ball to the wall on Monday, he didn't hit the ball at all. In the latest miserable game of an increasingly miserable series, he went 0 for 2 with two strikeouts, bringing his total to a World Series-record-tying 12 with still one (and perhaps two) games remaining. He has gone just 3 for 19 in the series with one RBI. And since going 2 for 5 in Game 1 with two doubles and an RBI, he has stranded all seven batters he has had on base, and has hit the ball out of the infield just twice.

Theories about Howard's struggles abound, from poor mechanics to the Yankees' scouting reports on him to the simple fact that he is, and has always been, a virtual nonfactor against the left-handed pitchers that have preyed on him thus far in the series. This season, Howard batted .207 against lefties, the fourth-worst average in the National League, with a .298 on-base percentage and .356 slugging percentage, compared to .319/.395/.691 against righties.

Whatever the cause, the simple fact remains that if the Phillies are to continue and then complete their comeback against the Yankees in the World Series this week, they will need Howard to be the slugging force he was in the first two rounds of the postseason. Against the Rockies and Dodgers, he batted .355 with 14 RBIs, matching a postseason record with at least one RBI in eight straight games en route to earning NLCS MVP honors. Even with Howard's alarming lack of production, the Phillies have managed to send the series back to the Bronx thanks mostly to the slugging exploits of the man who hits in front of Howard (Utley), but it's hard to imagine them winning it unless Howard snaps out of his slump soon.

While Utley has already sent five balls into the seats, Howard has put the ball in play just seven times in the entire series. Despite three strikeouts in the past two games, he also managed a single in Game 4 and drew two walks in Game 5, giving him hope that his pitch recognition is improving and that a breakout is awaiting in New York. "I just have to continue to try to see pitches and try to have good at-bats," he said Monday night.

This was a much more calm Howard than the one who snapped at the media after Game 3 and was nowhere to be found after Game 4. After the Phillies lost on Saturday night, in which Howard struck out three more times on the heels of a Game 2 in which he K'd in each of his four at-bats, he told assembled reporters waiting to ask him about his difficulties to "get away from my locker." Later that night, he said, "I'm a little bit anxious at the plate right now. It's just a matter of calming down."

He isn't the only slugging first baseman to be struggling in this World Series -- Mark Teixeira of the Yankees is batting just .105, but he has a home run and two RBIs, to 0 and 1 for Howard, and has struck out a comparatively paltry seven times. But because the Phillies still trail in the series, it can be said that Howard's lack of hitting has been more detrimental to the Phillies than Teixeira's has been to the Yankees.

The Yankees remain cautious with Howard, knowing full well that he is talented enough to turn his misfortune around at almost any moment. To avoid that, they are likely to repeat their pitching pattern to him until he proves he can force them not to. According to the pitch-by-pitch data from MLB.com, in the first five games of the series, Howard has faced 92 total pitches. Of those, 27 were fastballs, 27 were sliders and 24 were curveballs. With rare exceptions, the fastballs have been simply get-ahead pitches designed to set up their off-speed offerings, and the Yankees have used this strategy to maximum effect. Of those 54 breaking balls, Howard has swung at 21 of them, missed 11 entirely, fouled off eight and put just two of them in play, both of which resulted in harmless pop ups to shortstop.

The postseason may be a sample size of limited time, but a lack of time is exactly what the Phillies have in order to get Howard straightened out. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins suggested the problem might be "mental," as Howard tries too hard to produce. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel pulled Howard aside during Game 3 and told him he needed to keep his weight balanced so his hands don't drift forward. Thompson has been imploring him to hit the ball where it's pitched and try to keep his front shoulder from flying open.

That last flaw is a telltale sign that even if the Yankees aren't getting Howard to bite on their off-speed pitches, they are getting him out of sorts enough that even if he does make contact he isn't likely to be able to drive the ball with his characteristic force. Howard is stuck in a delicate balancing act: trying to be fast enough to react to a curveball or slider before it starts to break away from him, but not so quick that he can't react at all. "He's trying to be too quick," Thompson said. "You can be so in a hurry to hit but you still have to see the ball and react."

All of this means that a batter's reaction time, already less than a fraction of a second, is sped up even further, leaving Howard to flail at a ball that has already made its precipitous drop, taking with it his batting average (now .158 for the Series), his confidence and perhaps the Phillies chances of repeating as World Series champions.

If Howard is to break out of his slump in Game 6, he will have to do it against a pitcher -- New York's Andy Pettitte -- who thoroughly confounded him during his three at-bats in Game 3 that included two strikeouts, and against yet another steady diet of filthy breaking balls. In each at-bat, Pettitte started him with a fastball or cutter, then threw him nothing but sliders.

Howard will also have to do it without Thompson's recommended visual aid. The Phillies have Tuesday off, but the hitting coach swears that by the time the Phillies get to Yankee Stadium for batting practice on Wednesday, he'll have a new sign in left-center field all picked out for Howard to take aim at. Of course, he may want to keep Howard away from that part of the ballpark altogether. After all, that is the expansive stretch of baseball real estate where hitters' hopes and would-be base hits often go to die. It is known simply as Death Valley.

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