PHILADELPHIA -- Ryan Howard spent the season's first half punishing National League pitchers in his personal home run derby. Those powerful swings afforded him three months worth of preparation for Monday's CENTURY 21 Home Run Derby on ESPN at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, where Howard will compete against seven other sluggers to crown the 2006 champion. "My approach to the derby is to hit home runs," Howard said. "It's going to be a thrill."
It also will be an interesting proposition for Howard, who despite having hit an NL-leading 28 home runs, might not be the type of hitter to excel in one of these competitions. His methodical batting-practice regimen includes spraying line drives all over the field, rather than launching souvenirs for early arriving fans. Howard participated in a Home Run Derby two years ago, when he was swatting 37 homers for Double-A Reading. He went homerless in that Eastern League exhibition. "The wind was blowing in," he said. "This one's going to be a little bit more hyped up." While Howard earns his money crushing baseballs over the fence -- and he is quickly becoming one of the game's elite sluggers -- his main focus is to stay disciplined. The left-handed hitter has freakish power to the opposite field, swatting 18 of his 28 homers to center and left field. "Howard doesn't hit BP home runs," Phillies bullpen catcher Mick Billmeyer said. "He hits 'em in the games." Only once at Citizens Bank Park this season has the first baseman pulled a homer to right, though that one qualified as the furthest ball hit in the park's three-year history. The American League squad will feature Boston's David Ortiz, Toronto's Troy Glaus, Chicago's Jermaine Dye and Baltimore's Miguel Tejada. Howard's four-man NL group includes New York's David Wright, Florida's Miguel Cabrera and Houston's Lance Berkman. The switch-hitting Berkman will bat left-handed in the derby because PNC Park favors lefties. He likes Howard's chances. "I think he has a great chance," Berkman said. "I think it's going to be a left-handed hitter -- depending on how the ball's carrying -- but I think it's going to be tough for a right-handed hitter to win it, because the porch is a lot closer in right field than left."
Phillies outfielder Bobby Abreu, who has seen Howard's opposite-field stroke, isn't so sure."It will be different because he doesn't pull the ball," Abreu said. "It will be interesting to see him do it. He should do fine." Howard has enlisted bullpen coach Ramon Henderson to pitch to him, after Henderson helped Abreu win the title last year, with the right-fielder setting records for a single round (24) and his final total (41). Henderson will also pitch to Ortiz. "He's the defending BP pitcher champion," Howard said. "I'm going to talk to him and try to get some trade secrets -- some of the inside stuff. I'm going to talk to Ramon and try to work on some strategy." To prepare, Howard has begun taking batting practice in Henderson's group. Henderson's plan is to temporarily stop Howard from going the opposite way. "It's not the line-drive derby," said Howard, who is on pace to break Mike Schmidt's Phillies single-season home run record of 48. "I look at it as fun, and everybody there is looking at it as fun, so I'm not going to try to make anything out of it or put on extra pressure."
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.