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Howard swinging for mental, physical rejuvenation

At 33 years old, slugger trying to capture power of his younger days with Phillies

Howard swinging for mental, physical rejuvenation

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Ryan Howard is 33, but he is not old.

He definitely is not old.

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"It's all about how young you feel inside and how well you take care of yourself," Howard said Thursday at Bright House Field. "Everybody in this clubhouse goes and works their butt off. Everybody goes out in the offseason, we train and we do what we need to do to come back.

"If people want to call us old, that's fine. But I think going out there this year, we're going to show people that we're not old. Call us old if you want to, if you want to sweep us under the rug, just don't be surprised."

The Phillies would love for Howard to play like a younger version of himself in 2013. He certainly hopes he can play as if he's more than a year removed from left Achilles surgery.

Howard did not play in his first game until July 6 last season, and he played with mixed results, as he lacked strength and explosiveness in his left leg. He averaged one RBI every 4.64 at-bats, which was his best mark since 2009 (4.37), and ranked 10th in baseball with 56 RBIs from July 6 through the end of the regular season.

But Howard suffered career lows in batting average (.219), on-base percentage (.295) and slugging percentage (.423). He also averaged a strikeout every 2.95 plate appearances, the highest rate of his career, and one homer every 18.57 at-bats, the lowest rate of his career.

However, Howard believes he can return to form since he is healthier physically and mentally.

First, the physical part.

"My left leg feels phenomenal compared to this time last year, compared to where it was when I came back," Howard said. "When I came back, there was obviously still a limp. I tried to do what I could. Having this offseason to work out again and build up strength in my leg ... my Achilles is a non-factor. It was really a non-factor when I came back last year, but it was more about building up the muscles in the rest of my leg again. I'm taking this offseason to do that, and it feels a lot better.

"It's one of those things where you're just not 100 percent confident in it. You can't do the things you normally could do. Sometimes you might try to make a cut and you might feel something. Yeah, there is always going to be that fear in that it might do this, or it might rupture again. Now, it's not even a second thought in my mind."

Second, the mental part. Howard mentioned an improved frame of mind when asked about how he worked to improve his hitting over the winter.

"A lot of it was kind of mental," said Howard, who hit .173 against left-handers last season. "I told myself that I'm not even going to stress it or worry about it. I know it's in there. I just have to let the inner me come out at the plate and be relaxed.

"I have to trust myself, trust my ability and let it fly. ... It's a combination of listening to the noise and trying to please people. People say, 'Oh, he can't hit lefties.' I have to show them I can hit lefties. Obviously, to get to the big leagues, you have to hit lefties and righties. It's putting all that stuff aside and just trusting my abilities. I know I can hit lefties. It's just a matter of being relaxed."

But is healthy and relaxed enough to still hit like Howard hit from 2006-09, when he hit no fewer than 45 homers with 136 RBIs in any season? He seems to believe he can.

"You have to continue to make adjustments," Howard said. "For me, it's continuing to go up there with a game plan. Being relaxed. At times, I would get so caught up in what I'm doing and try to be so technical about my stance and swing, instead of thinking about that guy on the mound and what he's going to do.

"Hey, your swing is going to be what your swing is, as long as you have an approach against this guy and know what he's trying to do. It's putting your focus on that instead of, 'Oh, you have to put your foot here and your hands there.' At times, I would get lost in that."

If Howard does what he believes he can do, and a few other things break the Phillies' way, the Phils just might surprise like he said.

"I understand the 'window [of opportunity]' talk," Howard said. "Yeah, there is a window of opportunity, but if you focus on the window closing, then you never let that cool breeze come in. For us, the window closes when the window closes, but right now the window is still open, so we have to go out and take advantage of this nice breeze while we can."

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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