FOR EACH TOPIC this postseason, Charlie Manuel has a story, an anecdote, an allegory.
So it was the other day when Ryan Howard's pre-at-bat meditation came up. Nothing unusual, Charlie insisted. See it all the time.
"Willie Davis, he used to hum," the Phillies' manager was saying, and wel-l-l, away we went again. You spend 47 years of your life inside of professional baseball, traveling from Wisconsin to Tokyo, something always reminds you of something else.
Willie Davis played for the Dodgers in the 1960s and 1970s.
Doesn't matter. He hummed. Howard meditates.
Decades merge instantly when Manuel is spinning yarns.
"I'll never forget we were in Japan, in these country vs. country games in Nagasaki," Manuel said. "Willie was in the outfield by the centerfield wall and I ran by him and said something to him and he didn't answer me. I ran by him again and he was still humming. Finally I passed him and he wasn't humming anymore. He said, 'Hey Charlie, how's it going? I didn't mean to blow you off. I was meditating.'
"I've seen guys do that. Pitchers. Hitters. It's part of who you are. If that keeps you stay focused . . . ''
Ryan Howard is focused. Has been for at least 6 weeks, about the length of time that Manuel has noticed him leaning over his bat in the dugout, eyes closed, quiet, as his turn in the order approaches. Since Sept. 1, a span of 133 at-bats, the Phillies' cleanup hitter is batting .360 with 10 home runs, 12 doubles, two triples and - perhaps most impressive - 23 walks.
He has struck out 38 times over that span, far below his season ratio, or the ratio of his past few seasons when he was setting records for whiffs.
"Just trying to be as disciplined as I can and just be as relaxed as I can," he said the other day.
Which would seem to be the whole point of the meditation - except for this: Howard said he never really consciously decided to do it.
"I guess it just happened," he said.
As the season unwound and the Phillies flirted with a late-season collapse, Howard's inner dugout peace was hardly noticed. There were issues of bullpen pitching, hitting with runners on third - all that required our focus.
Howard's strong September excluded him from any blame. Looking back, it might also have provided ballast. The rest of the Phillies might have squeezed the bats a bit down the stretch this regular season, but there has been a noticeable ease in which they have approached big run-producing moments this postseason.
Consider the clinching Game 5 of the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers. With two outs and a man on in the first, Howard worked a walk rather than chase a pitch from Vicente Padilla. Jayson Werth followed with a three-run blast, and the Phillies grabbed a lead they never relinquished.
"Hitting is contagious for sure," Werth said the other day.
So is patience, approach, mentality. Just as Howard's anxiousness at times affects the lineup, his approach this autumn seems to have produced a calm throughout it; the Phillies have been issued 42 walks over the nine postseason games. A year ago, that number was 34.
They scored 40 runs in reaching the 2008 World Series. They have scored 55 runs at the same juncture this year.
How much of that is Howard?
"I would probably have to say it's a little bit of everything," he said. "When you're hitting in this lineup . . . it makes things a lot easier."
OK, sure. But consider this: He had three runs batted in last year at this juncture, with pretty much the same lineup. This year it's 14.
"I think it's more just the experience that I've gained from last year to this year," he said. "Just the entire feel of the playoffs and just kind of taking a step back and looking at last year, at what kind of happened last year, and just ways of maybe being able to change that going into this year. I just kind of gathered that experience of just being more relaxed, going up there and being loose and having fun playing the game."
That's who the Phillies are now. One bad at-bat does not imply another. One bad game does not beget another. It seems like forever ago when there was panic in that dugout, seems like forever ago, said Manuel, "When I used to get a little hot about it."
"I'd call guys out and tell them that they couldn't be scared," he said. "Like, when you get in the moment and everything, if you're scared, we're not going to win.
"It took us a little while to get over that. Now, when we get down, like when we get our feet knocked out from under us, we'll get up. We'll come back. That's the even keel that we talk about now. That's who we are now."
Yes it is. And in this postseason at least, Ryan Howard is their high priest.
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