NEW YORK -- Heading into the start of the World Series, much of the offensive focus for the Phillies centered on the man occupying their cleanup spot. And why not? Ryan Howard had a hit in eight of Philadelphia's nine playoff games and had driven in 14 runs.
In Game 1 of the World Series, Howard seemed to stay hot, with two doubles sandwiching a pair of strikeouts. In Game 2 against A.J. Burnett, however, he more closely resembled the slugger that struggled making contact in May and June than the one who couldn't be retired in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Howard finished 0-for-4 on Thursday night with four strikeouts -- the first time he has accomplished that ignominious feat in 28 career postseason games.
Howard himself, though, was quick to chalk Thursday's problems at the plate up to the man that stood 60 feet and six inches from it for the Yankees.
"You've got to give it up to A.J.," Howard said. "He had his curveball working today. It was a nasty pitch -- nasty."
Burnett struck Howard out three times with his curveball -- the first two swinging on pitches in the dirt, the third time catching the outside corner. Looking at strikes on the corner was a theme of Howard's night.
"It looked like he [home-plate umpire Jeff Nelson] was giving guys the corners, in and away," Howard said. "The calls he made were the calls he made."
Howard added that he was "probably not" comfortable with the outside pitch in Game 2.
Howard's fourth and final strikeout came leading off the ninth inning, looking at a Mariano Rivera cutter, again on the outside corner.
And so, in the span of four at-bats and nine innings, Howard shifted from one of the two hottest hitters in baseball to a guy who has gone a pedestrian 2-for-9 with six punchouts in two Series games.
"Baseball's a game of ups and downs," Howard said. "You're not going to stay hot forever. That's why you have a batting average. That's why it's all about a comfort level."
Howard was far from the only Phillies batter who didn't find a comfort zone at the plate against the combination of Burnett and Rivera -- easily two of the league's filthiest pitchers. Philadelphia managed a total of six hits, only one of which came from the usually dangerous top four of its lineup. The quartet of Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley and Howard combined to go 1-for-13 with six strikeouts.
Those four players scored 17 of the Phillies' 35 runs in the National League Championship Series and five of their six in Game 1; none crossed the plate in Game 2.
From the start, Philadelphia's offensive strategy was to work Burnett's pitch count and wait out the occasionally erratic Yankees starter. It didn't exactly work, because Burnett dealt first-pitch strikes to the first 11 batters he faced and 23 of the 26 he faced overall.
"He never got outside of himself, and that's very atypical for A.J. Burnett," Rollins said. "We got his pitches up, but for him it was a pretty low count."
Nevertheless, it's not like the Phillies haven't rebounded from Game 2 losses before. This is the fourth consecutive postseason series in which Philadelphia has dropped Game 2; the Phillies haven't lost another game in the first three of those series. And now they head back to their home ballpark, where the comfort level Howard spoke about is easier to find.
The Phillies, in fact, have won 11 of their 12 postseason games at Citizens Bank Park over the past two years, averaging more than six runs per contest.
Tim Britton is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.