Ryan Howard Keeping Phillies Alive in Wild Card Chase

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the Philadelphia Phillies snuck into the playoffs after trading Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle to the New York Yankees at the trading deadline?

The move was a clear indication that the Phillies were throwing up the white flag yet with three weeks remaining in the season, they were still in the wild-card race, trailing the San Diego Padres by 2 1/2 games. Now, it helps the Phillies’ cause that all the teams in the N.L. wild card chase are mediocre at best, but they haven’t given up.

The main reason Philadelphia has been able to stay in the playoff race (such as it is) has been the emergence of first baseman Ryan Howard, who in just his first full season in the major leagues seems to be developing into the game’s next superstar.

Where did this guy come from? Good question.

Howard had a solid rookie season last year, hitting 22 home runs and driving in 63 runs in 88 games. He became the Philles’ every-day first baseman in July when Jim Thome went down with a season-ending elbow injuried and was named the National League Rookie of the Year.

The Phillies traded to Thome to the Chicago White Sox prior to the start of this season because of his back problems and that provided an opportunity for Howard, who has made the most of it.

There was no indication, however, that Howard would follow up his rookie season by hitting more than 50 home runs. And with three weeks remaining, he might have a chance to hit 60. Through September 11, he had belted a major-league best 56.

Before Howard smacked hree home runs in the first game of a doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves on September 3 to give him 52, he had already broken surpassed Mike Schmidt’s previous team record of 48. So this begs the obvious question: what if Howard hits six more home runs and finishes with 62, one more than Roger Maris hit in 1961. Would he become the “natural” single-season home run leader?

Yes, we know that Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa have surpassed Maris’ mark in the last decade but in the eyes of many observers, their records are tainted because of alleged steroids use. So far, the “S” word has not been linked to Howard. If he does hit 62 home runs, baseball obviously won’t recognize it but it would make for an interesting debate.

What cannot be debated is the manner in which Howard has carried the Phillies in the second half of the season, especially in the absence of Abreu. Much of the discussion regarding the Most Valuable Player race in the National League centers on Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals and Carlos Beltran of the New York Mets, who are each having great seasons. But Howard has blown past both of them in the last two weeks and his numbers are so good that he might have locked up the MVP award whether the Phillies make the playoffs or not.

Howard also led the major leagues in RBI with 138 and was batting .316. He is on pace to become just the fourth National League player in the expansion era (post 1962) to drive in at least 150 runs in a single season. The only other National Leaguers to do it were Sosa, Tommy Davis, who drove in 152 runs for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1962 and Andres Galarraga, who plated 150 for the Colorado Rockies in 1996.

Sosa accomplished the feat twice – driving in 160 runs in 2001 and 158 in 1998 – but one has to question the legitimacy of those numbers , and Galarraga had the advantage of playing in the high altitude of Coors Field.

Since the All-Star break, Howard was batting .374 with 28 homers and 67 homers. He sparked the Phillies to an 18-11 record in August that helped them climb back into playoff contention.

Howard also has set a major league record for most home runs by a player in his second season. The previous mark of 51 was set Ralph Kiner in 1947.

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