Thursday, September 21, 2006

Dusty Likes Phillies' "Big Boy"

For two days, Dusty Baker - who once managed Barry Bonds - had watched how Ryan Howard, like Bonds, could send a buzz through a crowd just by stepping to the plate.

The Chicago Cubs manager also marveled at how Howard was already seasoned enough to relinquish his slugger's credentials when needed and intelligently chip in a two-out, opposite-field hit.

And when he ran the bases well enough to score from first on a two-out double to left in a 4-1 Phillies victory Tuesday? "Big Boy can roll," marveled Baker.

What Baker didn't see in this three-game Cubs-Phillies series is what pleased him most.Baker did not see Howard's signature play - the howitzer home run - a now-storied shot that has made the Phillies first baseman the most feared long-ball threat in the game.

Fifty-seven times opposition managers have seen the bolts; Baker did once when Howard homered at Wrigley Field last month. But not in this series.

"Hopefully," Baker said before last night's game, "we can get out of here tonight and deal with Howard next year."

In a way, baseball men like Baker are as curious about all of Howard's tomorrows as they are cautious about his todays.

"You'd better hope you have a lefthander ready, and really hope you have two to increase your odds," Baker said. "There's no guarantee either way, but when you're facing this team and you have to face [Chase] Utley and Howard, back to back? You've got to have more than one lefty during the course of the game.

"For two games, Cubs reliever Will Ohman - with two confrontations and two strikeouts of Howard - seemed to be that lefty. "It was very impressive, but you don't want to be in that situation too often," Baker said with a chuckle. "I don't care how good he's done against him. Every time Will gets him out, the law of averages is on Howard's side."

Howard proved Baker right when he faced Ohman in the fifth and raked a double last night.

"He just kind of left the pitch up, and you've just got to jump on it sometimes," said Howard, who went on to score in that inning, paving the way to a 6-2 Phillies victory.

So he is dangerous. But as dangerous as Bonds?

"Not yet," Baker said, "because look how long it took for Barry to get to that point."In the first four or five years, you could pitch to Barry. After that, Barry went to that next level."

Howard's first two-at bats against relative unknown lefty Les Walrond last night (strikeout swinging on a breaking ball, groundout) illustrated how difficult finding that level is in the face of increasingly stealthy pitches."

And that will be tougher this next week, because there's a lot at stake and he's no longer a secret," said Baker, referring to the Phillies' chase for the wild card."

Right now, you can probably pitch to him a little bit and he can get himself out, but after a while, he's going to stop swinging at the balls that he's swinging at. Then you're really going to be in trouble."

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