Strategy time. Brewers catcher Jason Kendall clasped his left hand to his chest, thrusting his right arm out to his side. The pitcher, Seth McClung, took Kendall's cue, whizzing four balls well wide of the plate. And Howard, head down, mind burning, quietly jogged to first.
Twice in this NLDS, the Brewers have intentionally walked Howard with a man on second base and first base open. Twice, they have unintentionally walked him with no one on base. And though so many free passes may seem to be an unnecessary precaution, the strategy has worked.
Brewers manager Dale Sveum has chosen to ignore Howard's miniature October slide, looking instead at a September in which Howard hit .352 with 11 home runs and 32 RBIs, coming through for the Phillies in nearly every critical situation.
"You just try to keep that guy in the ballpark," Sveum said after the Brewers walked Howard once in Game 2, striking him out three times. "And we've done that."
Perhaps, for Howard, that Game 2 stat line hints at a greater problem. Low-average, high-power hitters such as Howard are prone to falling into slumps without warning, meaning that whatever wave he was riding in September may have suddenly crashed. He warned of this before the NLDS, insisting that October is a long way from September. And now, through two games, it seems as though Howard was preaching a rather valid point.
Worse for the Phillies, his protection is not protecting. Pat Burrell, nursing a cranky back prior to the series, has gone 0-for-5 over the first two games. And Utley has produced just one hit, a two-run double in Game 1 that Brewers center fielder Mike Cameron certainly could have caught.
"I actually hit that ball pretty well," Utley said after that game, and he did. But such a key hit has masked the fact that Utley hasn't had many positive swings since, grounding out twice in the later stages of that game and striking out three times in Game 2.
|The Phillies' 3-4-5 hitters have struggled mightily in Games 1 and 2 of the NLDS against the Brewers.|
Still, if the Phillies plan on playing deep into October, they'll need some offensive help from Howard, Utley and Burrell, their three main power sources. So, like Manuel, they're hanging on the hope that it's not yet time to worry.
Of Utley's six most recent fruitless at-bats, four have come against lefties, and the same goes for each of Howard's four Division Series strikeouts. Seems Sveum is using more carefully crafted strategies than just the intentional walk, mixing and matching lefties Mitch Stetter and Manny Parra to face the left-handed-hitting Utley and Howard in key spots.
Burrell's slump, considering his back woes, seems slightly more vexing, especially in the context of recent weeks. Once enjoying a fine season that saw him hit 23 homers before the All-Star break, Burrell batted just .191 in August and September to stumble into the postseason.
The Phillies, as Manuel noted, are taking solace in the fact that Shane Victorino is hitting, that Jimmy Rollins and Jayson Werth are producing and, yes, that they're winning. But they can attribute that last bit mainly to solid starting pitching, without which they might not be in such a cozy position.
The presence of the Brewers' Game 3 starter, Dave Bush, may help. Utley, Howard and Burrell are a combined 14-for-36 lifetime off Bush, with six home runs and four doubles. And Burrell's numbers are the best of the three, which could prove to be significant. Batting fifth in the lineup, a hot Burrell might force the Brewers to think twice about walking Howard, which in turn could allow him to rediscover his September stroke.
"The competitor in you wants to try and get the job done," Howard said. "That's what the frustrating part is about."
He admits that the walks are a sign of respect, but Howard can hardly take solace in that. And so the Brewers' strategy has bred a frustration that he's willing to endure, if not entirely embrace.
"There's not a whole lot you can do to deal with it," Howard said. "You just take it and run with it."
And then walk to first.
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.