CLEARWATER, Fla. — Ryan Howard tapped both sides of the carpet home plate and looked at Ryne Sandberg. The Hall of Famer threw a batting practice fastball to Howard at Bright House Field and the slugger swung. The ball bounced off a 2008 World Champions banner in right field, but everyone around the cage was focused on Howard's left ankle.
Howard put on his No. 6 uniform Wednesday for the first time since that fateful swing at a 2-2 curveball in October. He was no closer to a return from a ruptured left Achilles' tendon even as he mashed batting practice fastballs, laughed with teammates, and chatted up Jim Thome.
The first baseman offered few clues as to whatever timetable he's set for himself. The Phillies have publicly targeted sometime in May, but they will be conservative with any decisions.
"I’m not going to put a time limit on it," Howard said. "I’m going to listen to my body and see where we are."
Howard's body permitted him to begin swinging about two weeks ago. He is jogging and taking ground balls. But he is not in playing shape. His left calf is significantly smaller in muscle mass than his right. He still walks with a limp after being in a boot for two months.
In other words, this is going to take some time, no matter how majestic his batting-practice swings are.
"You're probably not going to really get full strength until maybe around the All-Star break," Howard said. "Nobody has really said a whole, whole lot about that kind of stuff. But I feel good."
The last two seasons have ended with Howard at the plate, a fact not lost on the first baseman.
"It sucks," Howard said. "I’m not going to lie. It sucks. And I know how it looks to everybody, like having the season come down and you’re than guy. But I try to look at it positive like, the last two seasons I got out, I figure I’m about due. I’d love to be in that situation again."
Howard said he's seen only one replay of the swing that tore his Achilles. So what would have happened if Howard hit it into the gap instead of at the second baseman?
"It would not have been pretty," Howard said. "I will say that. I mean I probably would have just got to first or something like that and just stayed there. I was asked before if I had hit a home run what would I have done. It would have been ugly I’ll tell you that right now. I would have been crawling, or rolling, doing whatever I could to try to get around the bases."
Howard could not say if the cortisone injections and previous sprains in his ankle contributed to the Achilles' tendon blowing out. He said the training staff has prevented him from moving too quickly in his rehab even when the competitive juices demand otherwise.
"I think it was kind of a blessing in disguise in that it allowed me to step back and take a look at the whole situation," Howard said. "Get my mind right, get my body right."
As far as his current weight, Howard said he is happy with it considering he was "laid up on the couch for a few months." First he was in crutches, then a walking boot. His cardiovascular exercise was limited until he could ride a bike and then run underwater.
"And as the cardio picks up," Howard said, "I feel like it’s going to fall back in place."
So what did he do while confined to the couch?
"Watch a lot of TV," Howard said. "A lot of TV. Lots of Housewives shows and sporting events."
Housewives shows? Really?
"There was nothing I could really do," Howard said. "If it was by me, I had it. Otherwise, my fiance was in control and she knew I wasn't going to be too mobile."
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