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Saturday, October 1, 2011
Howard punishes Cards for bad decision

By David Schoenfield

What would you do?

Kyle Lohse had cruised through five innings, allowing one run only because a dropped foul popup gave the Phillies an extra out. But two ground balls -- two ground balls with eyes -- put two runners on with one out and Ryan Howard digging into the dirt at home plate.

In the postseason, one at-bat can change a series. Every game, every inning and, yes, every out, can be vitally important. This was one of those moments. You could feel it, the fans at Citizens Bank Park could feel it, and I'm sure Tony La Russa could feel it.

What do you do? Lohse hasn't thrown many pitches but he has given you five-plus innings. Remember, this is Kyle Lohse we're talking about here, and, yes, he pitched well down the stretch. Your two lefties in the bullpen are the ageless Arthur Rhodes and the hard-to-spell Marc Rzepczynski. In the regular season, you leave in Lohse. But this isn't the regular season. It's Game 1 of the National League Division Series, and the team that has won Game 1 has won the series 47 of 64 times since 1995.

Oh, two more quick notes. Howard isn't the hitter he used to be. The guy who hit .313 with 58 home runs in 2006 doesn't exist anymore; Howard hit .253 with 33 home runs in the regular season. But he's still a scary hitter; 18 of those 33 homers tied the game or put the Phillies ahead. He is, however, far less scary against left-handed pitching: He hit .224 with just three home runs in 170 at-bats this past season. Second note: Howard doesn't hit power pitchers as well as finesse guys. According to data at Baseball-Reference.com, he hit .206 against power pitchers, .282 with more power against finesse pitchers.

Ryan Howard
Ryan Howard belts his three-run homer in the sixth inning of Game 1 against St. Louis.
Kyle Lohse is not a power pitcher. In fact, Howard was 8-for-16 with two home runs off Lohse in his career entering the game. Granted, a small sample size, but the way La Russa obsesses over his little black book, he had to have known that.

Maybe this is a moot second guessing: After all, La Russa didn't even have his bullpen warming up.

Lohse went after Howard. The count went to 3-2. Lohse kept throwing changeups. Howard fouled off one that was over the plate. On TV, Bob Brenly said Lohse should throw another changeup. In the Cover It Live chat, most readers were saying he should throw another changeup. Lohse threw a changeup.

Howard hit it so high and so far it must have drawn rain from the cloud hovering over Yankee Stadium.

It was a bad changeup, a 78 mph floater that hung over the middle of the plate instead of diving low and away. Howard didn't miss it. The point isn't that Lohse threw a bad pitch, however. You cannot let Howard beat you there with a finesse-throwing right-handed pitcher on the mound. If you want to leave Lohse in the game to face Shane Victorino, you're better off being as careful as possible and walking Howard. If not, why is Rhodes on the roster if you're not going to use him?

Two batters later, Raul Ibanez cranked another home run off Lohse. Needless to say, Roy Halladay wasn't going to give up a 6-3 lead. He had been dominant since Lance Berkman hit a three-run homer in the first inning on the one mistake he made all game. Yes, the game got out of hand from there, but it turned on that one decision.

For the Phillies, getting some big home runs from Howard is key to their playoff fortunes. Last postseason, in 33 at-bats, he was homerless and RBI-less. He struck out 17 times, including 12 times in the NLCS loss to San Francisco. So a hot Howard is certainly a good sign for the Phillies.

By the way, La Russa finally brought in Rhodes to face Howard in the eighth inning, after the score was 11-3. He grounded out.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.