This march hasbeen like last September for Howard: unusually hot. The Phillies first baseman,who hit a major-league-rookie-record 10 home runs in September, is stillcrushing the ball this spring with 10 dingers through Sunday. Though you can'tmake too much of Grapefruit League moonshots, one was significant because itwas a 450-foot blast off a lefthander, Ron Villone of the Yankees. The one bloton the lefthanded-swinging Howard's sterling rookie season was his performanceagainst southpaws: a .148 average with one homer and 26 strikeouts in 61 atbats.
This year managerCharlie Manuel is confident that Howard will have more blasts like the oneagainst Villone. "It took him a little while to adjust to hitting leftiesin the minors, but he hit them," says Manuel of Howard, who had 46 homersin Double A and Triple A combined in 2004. "He'll hit them heretoo."
When he does,Howard, 26, will confirm the belief that he is the game's next great slugger.Though he didn't join the Phillies for good last season until July 1, followingan elbow injury to first baseman Jim Thome, Howard's performance in 88 gameswas so strong--.288 average, 22 home runs, .567 slugging percentage--that hewas voted National League Rookie of the Year. Most impressive was how often hecame through in the clutch. "He honestly carried the team," says closerBilly Wagner, now with the Mets. "I've never seen a kid have such an impactthat soon, just come up and really take over a team offensively."
Howard's greatesthits included three game-winning home runs, two against the Dodgers and oneagainst the Braves, with the last two being grand slams. Howard's monsterSeptember enabled Philadelphia to make a late run at the postseason, but theclub fell one game short of the wild card. The Phillies at least finished aseason's-best 14 games over .500. "It was a fun run," Howard says."We showed a lot of heart, a lot of fight."
Howard was puttingup a fight back when the 2005 season started. With Thome entrenched at firstbase, Howard was unhappy that Philadelphia had experimented with playing him inthe outfield during spring training and then farmed him out to Triple AScranton/ Wilkes-Barre. He was anxious to get to the majors and that springreiterated his request to be traded (the first time had come after the '04season). The Phils were mum on the subject, and as it turned out Thome wouldmiss 103 games with back spasms and that bad elbow.
A trade waseventually made, but it was Thome who was shipped out of Philadelphia, in aNovember swap with the White Sox that cleared the way for Howard to become aregular at first base, where his defense is solid and improving and hishitting, of course, draws raves.
"His power theother way--that's the big thing," says Mets righthander Steve Trachsel."And he's definitely got plenty of power to go to centerfield in anyballpark. He's young, so he should continue to get better, which could bescary."