Philadelphia Phillies' Ryan Howard follows through on a double off Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Matt Moore during the second inning of a spring training baseball game Thursday, March 17, 2016, in Clearwater, Fla. Catching for the Rays is Luke Maile. (A
Chris O'Meara
March 17, 2016

CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) Ryan Howard chatted with Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski behind the batting cage while Maikel Franco took big cuts inside the batter's box.

Sluggers past, present and future together in red pinstripes.

Don't put Howard in the old category just yet.

The 36-year-old former NL MVP still has plenty of pop in that long, left-handed swing. Howard hit a double and homer off lefty Matt Moore in Philadelphia's 6-1 loss to Tampa Bay on Thursday.

They were two big hits for a guy who wants to play every day. Phillies manager Pete Mackanin has said he plans to platoon Howard at first base with right-handed hitting Darin Ruf.

''I know what I need to do in order for that not to be a situation,'' Howard said. ''I have to do what I've been working on, trust what I've been working on and hopefully force them to find ways to get me and Ruf in the same lineup against lefties.''

Howard hit .130 (13 for 100) with three homers and 40 strikeouts against lefties in 2015. He has a .219 career average against southpaws with 681 strikeouts in 1,738 at-bats. Meanwhile, he's a .283 career hitter with 267 of his 357 homers vs. right-handers.

Ruf hit .371 (36 for 76) with eight homers and 22 RBIs vs. lefties last year.

The Big Piece wants to make the decision tough on his manager. He ripped a liner down the right-field line off Moore his first time up and sent a towering drive into the seats in right his next at-bat.

''I think he's rising to the challenge,'' Mackanin said. ''We'll continue to get a look at that for the rest of the spring.''

Howard worked in the offseason on going back to the comfort level he had against lefties in the past. He led the NL in home runs (10) and RBIs (32) against lefty pitchers in 2014 but struggled when he started trying to prove he can hit them better last year.

''I put excess pressure on myself going up there trying to get hits against lefties as opposed to going up there, having good at-bats, taking walks,'' Howard said. ''I felt walks weren't good enough. I had to get hits. But that gets you in bad habits because you're chasing pitches. I focused more this offseason on letting the ball travel more and that's where I was successful when I take it to the opposite field.''

Howard is entering the final season of a five-year, $125 million contract. The Phillies will almost certainly exercise the $10 million buyout clause for 2017 if Howard isn't traded before the end of the year.

He is one of only two players - catcher Carlos Ruiz is the other - remaining from the group that helped the Phillies win five straight division titles, two NL pennants and the 2008 World Series. His good friend, Jimmy Rollins, was traded in December 2014. Chase Utley and Cole Hamels were traded last summer.

''I try not to focus on it, but you understand the business and where the team is going,'' Howard said. ''The focus for me is playing and all the other stuff takes care of itself. I have to come out here, try to help protect Mikey (Franco) in the lineup and put up some numbers.''

The rebuilding Phillies have plenty of young, talented players surrounding Howard in the clubhouse. They were just kids watching when Howard hit 58 homers with a .313 average and 149 RBIs in 2006.

''I grew up watching the Cardinals and I'd see Schmitty play against them and then to be able to play against (Barry) Bonds and (Ken) Griffey Jr., it was surreal,'' Howard said. ''Now, I'm that guy.''

Howard averaged 50 homers and 143 RBIs from 2006-09. But he hasn't been the same since he ruptured his Achilles making the final out against St. Louis in Game 5 of the 2011 NL Division Series.

He hit .223 with 23 homers and 85 RBIs in 2014 and .229 with 23 homers and 77 RBIs last season.

''People use numbers and age when they see fit,'' Howard said. ''A guy is older and his numbers aren't the same and he's declining and then you have a young guy who struggles when he comes up and it's, `Oh, he's young.'

''If you can play the game, you can play the game. You're going to have ups and downs, good years and bad years.''

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Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AP-RobMaaddi

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