NEW YORK -- The sixth-inning situation Monday supplied a textbook reason not to pitch to Ryan Howard. There were two outs, first base was open and right-handed reliever Ambiorix Burgos could've dealt with the right-handed Pat Burrell, a more favorable matchup, instead of the lefty-swinging Howard. So Mets manager Willie Randolph challenged the reigning National League Most Valuable Player, and paid for it when Howard clubbed a three-run home run that gave Philadelphia the lead. Among the reasons for his decision, Randolph offered this nugget:
"Pat Burrell is a Mets killer," he said. Had Jimmy Rollins not drawn attention with his "Phillies are the team to beat" proclamation, Burrell's Mets mastery may have seen more coverage. In a career that began in the 2000 season, Burrell has hit .257 against New York, with 36 of his 189 homers (19 percent) and 92 of his 649 RBIs (14 percent). While it's fair to point out that Burrell faces the Mets 19 times a season, it can be countered with the fact that he's homered 20 times against the Marlins, 19 times against the Expos/Nationals and 14 times against the Braves, other NL East rivals. Burrell had two singles Monday to raise his average to .385 over the first seven games and put him at .280 for his career in April, his second-best month after May. Through those seven games, he has provided protection for Howard. Regardless of where one stands on whether lineup protection is a myth, Burrell's continued production will force managers to rethink the strategy of automatically walking Howard, especially when the first baseman is struggling. "[Burrell's] capable of hitting 40 home runs, and capable of hitting 30 every year," said manager Charlie Manuel. Burrell got contact lenses this spring and tweaked his stance to put more weight on his back foot, something he wasn't able to do last season because of pain in his right foot. That forced him into bad habits and led to 100 fewer at-bats. Still, he hit 29 homers and drove in 95 runs, but was largely a non-factor in September. While he's not quite there yet, Burrell feels he's getting into the swing of things. "I've had some good success with it at times and didn't feel comfortable at times," he said. "But it's just like anything else. Sometimes it's not as comfortable as I'd like, but I know it's the right thing to do, and I've got to stick with it." In the five games hitting behind Howard, Burrell has gone 4-for-6 with a homer, four RBIs and a two walks with Howard on base. On Friday, he followed an intentional walk to Howard with a three-run homer. More than Burrell: Burrell's early successes can't mask what has otherwise been a team-wide offensive problem, the art of hitting with runners in scoring position. While Burrell is at .800 (4-for-5 with five RBIs), the team is a collective .188 (13-for-69) with 23 strikeouts. That has a direct result on the Phillies having left 68 men on base through the first seven games, to lead the Major Leagues. Howard is 2-for-13 (.154) with six strikeouts, while Chase Utley is 1-for-9 (.111). "There's no way you can explain it," Howard said. "You either do or you don't. There's no textbook answer. I thought we've been patient, but the results weren't there." From Elias: The Elias Sports Bureau has uncovered three nuggets from Monday's game: The seven strikeouts recorded by Cole Hamels gave him 160 in his first 25 career starts. That total is the highest by a lefty during the same period since Fernando Valenzuela had 180 in 1981. By homering against New York on Monday, Howard became the first player since Hank Aaron to homer in five straight games against the Mets. Aaron, the only other player with that accomplishment, did it in 1962-63. Jimmy Rollins made an error and grounded into a double-play for only the fifth time in his 959 Major League games.
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.