SAN FRANCISCO -- Nearly every time Ryan Howard mentioned the sore left quadriceps that has contributed to his slow first five weeks, he felt compelled to glance at it, then massage it, perhaps hoping to wipe the soreness away. "It's tight," he said. "Hopefully, it all works out and goes away." While he won't blame the soreness for his .198 batting average and 37 strikeouts in 91 at-bats so far this season, it's certainly not helping. The slugger hurt the muscle in Spring Training and said it's delayed him from feeling comfortable at the plate.
If his back leg is hurting, it's hard for him to push off and drive pitches, especially to left field, where he's been known to send many pitches to their graves. "It's just a comfort level, and right now, I haven't been able to get comfortable," Howard said. "I don't like making excuses. As bad as this is, I want to say it's good because it's a learning experience. Nobody wants to go through it, but you have to look at it for what it is." Manager and hitting guru Charlie Manuel thinks Howard's problems are more mental than physical ("He's trying too hard," Manuel said), but concedes that muscle soreness in Howard's back leg can affect him. "Once your weight goes too quickly to your front side, you're off-balance and you lose some bat speed and pop in your bat," Manuel said. As for the struggles, Manuel said, "This is all part of being a big-league hitter. Everybody sooner or later is going to go through that. It builds up. The more you start fighting yourself, the bigger hole you dig. It takes some time." An impressive feat: Running in for his Major League debut, Yoel Hernandez said he could feel his heart racing. Living his lifelong dream, he told himself to calm down. Three pitches in, he woke up sweating, as Pedro Feliz deposited the first strike Hernandez threw into left field. "At least I got to pitch in a close game," Hernandez said. "I wasn't expecting to give up a home run to my first hitter. Now I'll have a story to tell." When he relates the tale, Hernandez can mention that he earned his way onto a pretty impressive list, one that includes Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, should-be Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven and established Major League starters like Jeff Suppan, all of whom have given up home runs to the first batter they faced. According to the Baseball Almanac Web site, Hernandez is the 63rd pitcher to suffer that fate and the second this season (Boston's Hideki Okajima did it on April 2). Hernandez also surrendered a single to Omar Vizquel, one of his boyhood idols, and recorded a strikeout for which he received the ball as a memento. The run he allowed gave him an ERA of 13.50. With the bullpen in its current state and Manuel searching for reliability, Hernandez knows this is a chance to show he belongs. He was used in a close game out of necessity and would like to earn that role. "This is a chance to show them that I can pitch here, and they can keep me for a while," he said. "I need to keep the games close." Recognition: Fans seeking autographs outside the Phillies' clubhouse 30 minutes before Sunday's game were understandably rebuffed. After Pat Burrell, Aaron Rowand, Rod Barajas and others didn't stop, reliever Clay Condrey passed by. "Clay, can you sign?" a fan shouted. Condrey, who was just recalled from Triple-A Ottawa, stopped in his tracks and smiled, "Hey, they know my name!" he said, before signing. Quotable: "Even if I give up a home run to him, I'll know I've stood on the mound and stared out at one of the best." Cole Hamels, on Barry Bonds. He was disappointed Bonds wasn't in Sunday's lineup. Coming up: If he survives his Sunday collision with a groundskeeper's cart, Freddy Garcia will start Monday against Arizona. The team won't know until determining how the pitcher feels Monday. The right-hander has already had a tough time this season following up on his 17-win season of 2006. He began the season on the disabled list (biceps tendinitis) and hasn't reached the sixth inning in any of his first four outings, carrying an ERA of 6.05. The 30-year-old righty has no record against the D-backs despite a career 1.29 ERA (one earned run in 7 innings), and he hasn't faced them since July 18, 2000, while with the Mariners.
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.