ALLENTOWN - There has been a lot of excitement at Coca Cola Park recently. I am not talking about how the IronPigs swept the Red Sox on Sunday and are in first place, or fireworks extravaganza that will happen after each game for the entire week in honor of Independence Day.
I am talking of the rehabbing Phillies. This past Tuesday, Chase Utley made a rehab appearance and drilled a homerun. Now we have Ryan Howard in the park for his rehab stint that may last through Friday.
In the second game of yesterday's twinbill, the Phillies slugger made his fourth appearance in his return from surgery on his left achillies tendon that he snapped in the last game of last year's National League Division Championship against St. Louis.
Although he was 0-for-2 at the plate, Howard was pleased with his performance with his five innings in at first base.
"It felt good to be able to come out and continue to play some defense. I got a ground ball hit to me," Howard said. "So I was pretty happy about that. Everything felt good."
His performance not only put a charge into the crowd, into Lehigh Valley manager Ryne Sandberg.
"First thing I mentioned to him in his last inning out there was 'man you are looking good out there'," Sandberg said. "He said 'I feel good'."
Howard moved with ease at first base. A sharp grounder to his left by Pawtucket's Nate Spears was cleanly plucked up by Howard who deftly tagged the bag with an unassisted force.
At the plate in the second inning, Howard lined a grounder toward shortstop and was thrown out. In the fourth inning, Howard had two runners on and the fans behind him cheering wildly as he launched a shot to left-centerfield that was caught at the wall.
"To see that left-center stroke that is a good place to be to start with. There are some other nights where that second ball is trouble. The wind happened to be blowing to the right field pole."
"It was good contact and it looked like he was gaining on it."
To get this point is a clear indication of how hard Howard worked. Snapping the achillies tendon and the surgery that follows could mean a 12-month process or longer in trying to return to where you were before the injury. With surgery in October and eight months of healing under his belt, Howard is trying to beat the odds.
The strenuous work that the healing an rehabilitating required wore on Howard. All the work that he did took its toll to where the games became the easy part.
"We did everything we needed to do or possibly could possible do to get it to the position where it is now to where it could hold up," Howard said. "Everything I was doing in Clearwater it was kind of like, the easy part was playing the games.
In his first rehab assignment in Lakewood, Howard went 5-for-8 from the plate for the Blue Claws.
"The biggest thing is how it would hold up. After playing a few games and playing every day and seeing how it would hold up," Howard said. "It's held up pretty good. There's been a little bit of stiffness which is to be expected early in the morning but it doesn't take that long to break up."
Howard said that after few minutes of moving around and stretching, the stiffness fades away. With the hard part of the rehab out of the way, Howard now has to catch himself up to the speed of the game. To do this, the former NL MVP has been sent to Lehigh Valley.
"The biggest thing is the speed of the game. The ball I hit over to short in A-ball it's a hit. In Triple-A ball and the big leagues, that's an out," Howard said. "You'll face guy (at Lakewood) throwing 98 and you get a guy up here throwing 98, but he's got a better idea where it is going."
Howard's second at-bat drive to the opposite field greatly impressed Sandberg.
"To see that left-center stroke that is a good place to be to start with," the IronPig mentor said. "There are some other nights where that second ball is trouble. It was good contact and it looked like he was gaining on it."
For Howard, there is not definite time table for his return. By major league rule, he has sixteen more days that can be considered a rehab stint. While a return before the All-Star game is not out of the question, it looks like a few more weeks in the minors for Howard.
This also means he will be calling Coca-Cola Park his home for the time-being.
"I come back here (today). I think they got me slotted for DH. We'll see and maybe first base the next day," Howard conceded. "I just take it one day at time up here and keep playing the games."