Strikeout record not on Howard's radar

Strikeout record not on Howard's radar

WASHINGTON -- From one night to the next, Phillies slugger Ryan Howard went from four hits in four chances to four whiffs in as many plate appearances. And with the game on the line in the 10th inning on Saturday night and the season teetering in the balance, Howard was one strike away from tying the record for most strikeouts in a single season.

Oh, he'll match Cincinnati's Adam Dunn with his 195th strikeout and then pass him for the record sometime in the next seven games as the Phillies continue their belated charge toward the postseason. But not then, not on the last baseball Saturday night in the history of RFK Stadium.

"I don't know why you're even bringing that up," said Howard, who is sitting on 194 strikeouts this season. "I mean, I haven't thought about it all and I probably won't think about it. That's about it on that."

Instead, the reigning National League MVP lined a single to break a 1-1 tie that sent the Phillies on to another critical victory -- their ninth in the last 10 games -- this time 4-1 over the Nationals. Asked how it's possible to go from such bliss on Friday night when he homered, doubled and smacked two singles to a possible platinum sombrero (five whiffs) the next, Howard gave a pretty standard answer:

"That's how the game is, it happens like that sometimes. You're only as good as your last at-bat. You're good one day and the next day, it's something completely different. This game is weird like that. I went up there in my last AB and just tried to be a little more aggressive. I had a little trouble trying to pull the trigger earlier in the game. But in that situation, I told myself it wasn't going to happen again."

For Howard, striking out has happened often. The man who hit 58 homers last year and 42 more this year, has whiffed 488 times already in a career that has spanned little more than 2 1/2 years. Dunn set the single-season record with 195 strikeouts in 2004 and had 194 more during the '06 season.

Bobby Bonds is fourth on the all-time single-season list, having struck out 189 times during the 1970 season.

But his son, Barry, the all-time leader with 762 homers, has whiffed only 1,539 times in 12,603 plate appearances over the course of 22 seasons. Only once did he flail over 100 times in a single season -- 102 in his 1986 rookie season with the Pirates. This year, his last with the Giants, he's only done it 54 times in 474 plate appearances.

"Amazing," Howard said when apprised of those numbers.

Different strokes for different folks. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said that he and his coaches are working with Howard on the issue, teaching him how to be more selective at the plate.

"People forget how short a time he's played," Manuel said. "I think beginning next year, he'll begin striking out less. The more swings he gets, the more we talk to him, because he's very coachable and he listens. The more experience he gets, he'll start cutting that down. I think we can get it down to 130, 140. For a guy in the middle of the lineup and how hard he hits the ball, that would be fine."

Right now, though, Howard strikes out like Bonds walks -- 132 this season, a record 232 in 2004 and a Major League-record 2,558 in his career. At nearly 27, Howard's at a rather advanced age for a player with his Major League experience. But he may not yet be at the top of his game. Plus, his struggles at the plate -- he's hitting only .265 this season after batting .313 in 2006 -- can be directly related to his free-swinging approach.

It's not like he wants to strike out 200 times a year, does he?

"No, you don't," Howard said. "But at the same time, it's part of the game. They can't take strikeouts out of the game, can they? What can you do?"

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.