PHILADELPHIA -- Ryan Howard has developed such a fine reputation as a power hitter that when he hit 31 home runs last season, everybody wondered what happened.
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and manager Charlie Manuel offered clues in the offseason. Both said Howard's left ankle, which he badly sprained Aug. 1 in Washington, bothered him much more than he let on. It cost Howard three weeks on the disabled list and maybe sapped some of his power the remainder of the season.
"Whether it bothered me or affected me, it's last year," said Howard, who still finished eighth in the National League in homers. "Now it's a lot better."
But Howard said the ankle still is probably only 90 to 95 percent healthy.
"I still get a little bit of stiffness every once in a while," Howard said. "I'll take it now and see what happens in Spring Training. I'll just continue to look after it and take care of it. Those kinds of things linger, like the Cranberries."
But Howard stressed he is not concerned about the ankle heading into the 2011 season.
"It feels good," he said. "It's a lot better than it was. I got a lot of work done to it. I got a lot of the swelling out. Like I said, every once in a while, I get a little bit of stiffness or soreness, but I've been working out, and so far, so good."
Howard averaged one home run every 12.1 at-bats from 2004-09, but that dropped to one home run every 17.74 at-bats last season. But Phillies fans who follow Howard know he is a historically strong finisher. From 2006-09, he averaged one home run every 12.45 at-bats from the beginning of the season through July 31. He averaged one homer every 10.79 at-bats during the final two months of the regular season.
He never got that late-season bump last year.
"I'm not making excuses," said Howard, who often had his ankles wrapped in ice following games, even before he sprained the left ankle. "I felt like I was good enough to go out there and play. If I'm out there, I'm trying to give my best and do what I can with what I've got. So whether my ankle was good, whether it wasn't good, it doesn't really matter now."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.