When the end is near, it's always interesting to look back at the beginning.
Nobody is sure that the end is near for Ryan Howard, and the educated guess here is that it is not. All we know for certain is that the second-most-prolific slugger in Phillies history was benched by manager Ryne Sandberg in the final two games of a series against the San Francisco Giants.
That's what you have to call it when a player making $25 million is not in the lineup for a second straight game, even though the opposing pitcher - in this case, Tim Hudson - is a righthander who has been roughed up by Howard through the course of their careers.
Sandberg did not want to call it a benching after the Phillies' 2-1 win over the Giants on Thursday afternoon, but most managers try to maintain some diplomacy, especially when dealing with a situation as delicate as this one.
"A benching? No, I think it was more of a case of Darin [Ruf] just getting here, and I wanted to take a look at him for at least a couple of games and see where he's at," Sandberg said. "I haven't seen him in a while, and then [we] go from there."
Exactly where this Howard situation is headed is unknown, but it's going to be fascinating to watch. With the Phillies facing Arizona lefthander Wade Miley on Friday at Citizens Bank Park, it's likely that Ruf will be back at first base and Howard back on the bench.
After being left out of the lineup Wednesday, Howard talked extensively about his situation. A day later, after a morning meeting initiated by Sandberg to discuss why Howard wasn't playing against a pitcher he has dominated, the slugging first baseman had nothing to say.
"Talk to him," Howard said, pointing to the manager's office. "Bye."
Bye is what a lot of people who follow the Phillies want the team to say to Howard, and it's understandable. By his own admission, he is having a disappointing season, and you don't need to be a sabermetrician or have an advanced degree in statistics to know that his problems did not start in 2014.
Since he suffered the Achilles tendon injury that signaled the end of the second golden era in Phillies history, Howard has batted .236 with a .306 on-base percentage and hit just 40 home runs in 248 games. He was unhealthy and bad during his abbreviated 2012 and 2013 seasons. He has been healthy and worse this season.
For Howard, the beginning is the place that might offer a slice of hope for his future. The beginning was in 2001, the year the Phillies scouted and eventually drafted the man who would set their single-season home run record. That might have been the last time Howard looked as lost at home plate as he is now.
"He had a terrible junior year" at Missouri State, scouting director Marti Wolever said a few years ago. "The first week of the season, his team played at the University of Texas-Arlington, and one of our [scouts] was there to watch him. I'll never forget what he said: 'I can't even write him up because he was so horrible.' He struck out something like 11 times in 15 at-bats."
The Phillies drafted Howard anyway.
"We had seen enough of him . . . that we felt there was some serious power, and we needed to take a shot and see if the contact part could be improved," Wolever said.
That, in essence, is where the Phillies are again with Howard. He still has power in an era that is mostly devoid of that tool. Before Thursday, only 31 players had hit more than the 15 homers produced by Howard, who has gone deep just once in his last 122 plate appearances.
His lack of production, combined with his contract, which guarantees Howard $60 million beyond this season, makes him untradable as the non-waiver deadline approaches. That doesn't mean he is unsalvageable.
For the time being, it appears Sandberg is going to platoon Ruf and Howard.
"If he has trouble against lefthanded pitching, and Darin Ruf is swinging it, that becomes an option," Sandberg said. "If that becomes the scenario of having a righthander and having a lefthanded batter up there against certain pitchers, and both guys are going well, that's a good scenario."
A far-better scenario is having a first baseman who can slug 35 home runs in a season and play every day, but you won't find many people who believe Ryan Howard will ever be that guy again, let alone the man who averaged 491/2 home runs a season from 2006 through 2009.
It's possible, even probable, that Howard isn't going to find the groove that earned him the five-year, $125 million contract extension he signed in April 2010. But he might, and it's up to the player and the team to exhaust all avenues to get the most out of Howard rather than trading him for little value or releasing him.
Maybe that means a stint in winter ball this offseason. That's how Marlon Byrd got his career back on course. Maybe it means offseason hitting tips from Barry Bonds. The two men first connected in 2010.
When the Phillies signed Howard to that huge extension, they cited his dedication to the game. With his career on the brink, Howard needs that attribute more than ever.
Howard vs. Hudson
Despite stellar career numbers against Giants starter Tim Hudson, Ryan Howard did not play Thursday. Here are Howard's career numbers against Hudson.
PA AB H HR RBI SO BA OBP SLG OPS
80 67 22 7 17 11 .328 .425 .687 1.112