PHILADELPHIA -- Everybody expected this season to be Ryan Howard's last in Philadelphia.
But Wednesday could have been the unofficial end of his run as the team's regular first baseman, a role he has held since his supplanted Jim Thome in July 2005. Phillies manager Pete Mackanin told Howard in a pregame meeting Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park that he will be benched the next three to four games to give Tommy Joseph an opportunity to play. Mackanin said Joseph could win the everyday job in that time.
Mackanin called his meeting with Howard a "great conversation." Howard handled the news well. In fact, he approached Joseph afterward and told him to "kick some butt."
"I told him, I get it," Howard said about his meeting with Mackanin. "I know where I am right now. You know, I understand. By no means am I trying to relinquish my job or anything, but you know, I've played the game long enough to know and understand."
Joseph, in his first game with Howard officially benched, didn't reach base in the 7-2 loss to the Nationals. He went 0-for-4 with a strikeout. Howard made the final out of Wednesday's game as a pinch-hitter in the ninth, flying out to center.
"You can only do so much," Joseph said. "You can only get one hit in one at-bat. So I'm just going to continue to be prepared every day. Obviously it's a good feeling when you know you're going to play."
Joseph was appreciative of Howard's words of advice prior to the game.
"It meant a lot. He didn't have to do that," Joseph said. "He came up to me, told me I was going to play the next three or four days. He filled me in on what Scherzer likes to do out there, then told me to go kick some butt. We've talked a little bit since then, too. He's been great. He's done so much for this team and the city. That's something he didn't have to do. For a guy like him to come up to me and tell me that, that means a lot."
Howard, who is in the final season of a five-year, $125 million contract, is hitting .154 with eight home runs, 19 RBIs and a .558 OPS in 158 plate appearances. He hit .101 in May, which is the seventh lowest batting average for any hitter with 75 or more plate appearances in any month since 1981. Meanwhile, Joseph is hitting .270 with three home runs, five RBIs and an .816 OPS in 40 plate appearances.
Howard had started 37 of the team's 52 games, but had seen his playing time reduced recently. He said he believes he can improve offensively and recapture his role as the team's primary first baseman. But he certainly has no plans to quit, even if his struggles continue and he finishes the season as a bench player.
"No, I'm not going to quit," Howard said. "That's not in the vocabulary. That's the easiest thing to do -- quit and give up when things are hard. You really see what you're made of when those things are not going the way you want them to go."
Mackanin said he received no input from the front office about the matter.
"We'll just give him three or four days off and start all over," Mackanin said. "See where it leads. We'll see what Tommy does in three or four days. That very well could extend that period of time to a week. It depends on how well he looks. … It's not really so much about Ryan. It's about seeing the younger guy who tore it up in Triple-A and came up here to make a good first impression. We want to get a look at him. As we know, this season is about the future. We're in the middle of a rebuilding process."
Howard's contract expires at the end of the season, although he has a $25 million club option with a $10 million buyout. Officially, nobody has said the Phillies will take the buyout, but it is fait accompli.
"I mean, the organization has been wanting to see younger players for the last three years," Howard said. "So, I mean, yeah, I get it."
But Howard insists he can work out the mechanical flaws in his swing and avoid finishing his season as a bench player.
"I'm going to do my best to keep that from happening," he said. "I'm not even going to try to think like that. Like I said, just work on me. Just try to get things together, support my teammates out there and then when I get the opportunity to go play, try to go do what I can."
The possibility exists the Phillies could release the 36-year-old Howard at some point and just move on. But for now, that does not seem imminent. For now, the Phillies seem content to let Joseph play while the greatest first baseman in franchise history sits on the bench, trying to recapture some of the form that made him the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player and allowed him to anchor an offense that won one World Series, two National League pennants and five NL East championships from 2007-11.
"I don't think anybody wants to answer questions like this," Howard said. "Anybody who has played the game, you play this game long enough, you're going to have ups and downs. Being in the situation where I am, that's where I am. That's the reality of it right now. … Hey, you can either sit there and just sulk about it or you can do something about it. The only thing I can do is do something about it."
Todd Zolecki has covered the Phillies since 2003, and for MLB.com since 2009. Read his Phillies blog The Zo Zone, follow him on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.