Howard could be Phillies' Mr. October

In a city full of historic buildings, Citizens Bank Park is barely a pup. In just a few years, though, plenty of Philadelphia memories have been made here. As another October and another Phillies playoff run begin, we can be sure only that more drama is about to unfold.

Preparing for Saturday's Game 1, the Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals worked out on a glorious Friday afternoon. Some among them will become the heroes of this, the Phillies' fifth consecutive National League division series. Someone will make the key pitch, someone will deliver the clutch hit.

Just a hunch, but this feels like it could be a special October for Ryan Howard.

This NLDS will be Howard's 10th postseason series. He has had good ones, very good ones, and some not-so-good ones. He hit .286 with three home runs and six RBIs in the 2008 World Series - a pretty darn good showing. But he hit .174 with one homer and just three RBIs in the '09 World Series.

In the National League Championship Series against San Francisco last year, Howard hit a more than respectable .318 (7-for-22), but he had no home runs and did not drive in a run. And the series ended, of course, with Howard taking a called third strike from Brian Wilson.

It is not that Howard has not been a good postseason player. We're not talking about Donovan McNabb trying to erase his reputation for losing the big game. But Howard hasn't really had that signature postseason, that dominant performance that etches his name among the all-time greats.

Howard has, overall, been better in the postseason than Mike Schmidt, one of the great power hitters in franchise history. In 36 games over eight postseason series, Schmidt hit .236 with four homers and 16 RBIs. But he hit .381 with two homers and seven RBIs to become the MVP of the 1980 World Series. That's what we're talking about here.

For a number of reasons - Chase Utley's struggles, the team's overall offensive inconsistency - this would be a really, really convenient time for Howard to have that kind of October. And for a number of reasons, it just feels as if he's primed to do so.

First among those reasons, Howard is about as comfortable in the postseason spotlight as a player can be. And he has 2010 as motivation.

"Once you get into that atmosphere, that's when you get a true understanding of it," Howard said after taking batting practice. "You get to this point, you want to finish up better than we did last year. We fell short and now we've got another chance to make it right."

For Howard, there couldn't be a more fitting opponent for the start of that quest. He grew up rooting for Cardinals teams with Ozzie Smith, Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, and Tommy Herr.

"It's cool for me," Howard said. "You think of these types of moments. It's a little surreal for me, but I think it's going to be a lot of fun. I think it's going to be a great series, a fun series, a lot of energy here. I remember when I won the Hank Aaron Award in '06 and I was in St. Louis when they were in the World Series and the energy the crowd brought there. It seemed to be a lot of fun."

He has enjoyed himself thoroughly against the Cardinals. In 45 careers games, Howard has a .360 batting average, 1.185 OPS, 16 home runs, and 50 RBIs.

"It's home," Howard said. "It's always good to go home and play in front of my family and friends."

The other factor is St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols. Throughout his career, Howard has been compared constantly to Pujols, and generally not favorably. Pujols is a superior defender who hits for higher average. He happens to be one of the greatest players in major-league history and perhaps the overall best in the game today.

The Phillies' postseason could comprise three series against teams with arguably better first basemen: Pujols, followed by Milwaukee's Prince Fielder, and Mark Teixeira of the Yankees. Each matchup would give Howard that little extra competitive motivation.

Ultimately, that's what this hunch is about. It comes from watching Howard closely throughout his career, from being an unapologetic admirer of his work. When you get past the comparisons and the statistical evaluations that underrate his importance to this team, you're left with a competitive guy who was and is the most important element in this Phillies era.

A superb postseason would underscore that.

"We've had a lot of outside expectations," Howard said, referring to his team. "But I think the internal expectation for ourselves is to go and win a championship."

A big October from the big man would go a long way toward completing that mission.

 


Phil Sheridan:

NLDS Game 1: Phillies vs. Cardinals

First pitch: 5:07 p.m. TV: TBS Forecast: Cloudy, 60 Pitchers: Lohse vs. Halladay


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at http://go.philly.com/philabuster and his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan