CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Phillies haven't had much positive health news this spring, but they got some Thursday when first baseman Ryan Howard worked out for the first time in nearly a month without wearing a protective boot on his left foot.
Howard, who is still recovering from Achilles tendon surgery in November and a late-February infection in the same area, played catch and fielded ground balls while seated on a stool Thursday morning. He said afterward that he still hasn't been cleared to take batting practice or resume other baseball activities.
Nevertheless, Howard wouldn't rule out the possibility that he could return to the lineup sometime in May.
"It may be. We'll see," he said. "The whole thing is making sure that everything has healed up, that it's 100 percent, and just to make sure that we don't have to have any setbacks, that we don't have any reoccurrences and things."
Howard left camp on Feb. 26 to undergo a procedure to clean up an infection around the sutures from his surgery. Since that procedure, he'd worn a boot that was designed to protect the area and allow the infection to fully heal.
He made a follow-up visit with the surgeon, Mark Myerson, in Baltimore on Wednesday and said he was told that while the infection isn't completely gone, it has progressed enough that he no longer needs to wear the boot.
Pointing at the baseball shoe on his foot Thursday, he joked: "This is a new invention called a left shoe. It's nice. It's good to be out of the boot."
Howard hasn't taken batting practice or worked out with his teammates in 3½ weeks. But he insisted Thursday that missing all that time didn't constitute a "setback."
"I don't think it's really set me back," he said, "because I think the biggest concern was the tendon, and the tendon was never an issue. The tendon was repaired. So even with me not doing what I was doing before from a rehab standpoint, the tendon was still getting stronger. Now I can get back to doing some more strength-building stuff. So I don't really think it was a setback at all."
In fact, Howard called the infection "a blessing in disguise."
"It just slowed me down, basically, with my workouts and stuff like that," he said. "Sometimes I feel like maybe I would start too early. But it really just kind of taught me to slow down, listen to your body, take care of your body and just relax a little bit until this (injury) gets better."
Howard said he doesn't think he's far away from being in "baseball shape." But when he was asked about shortstop Jimmy Rollins' statements to ESPN.com earlier this month that it was possible that the 32-year-old first baseman wouldn't be fully healthy all year, Howard replied: "I guess there's only one way to find out."
"Everybody says it takes a full year (to recover) from this," he said, "but I think that's to get 100 percent of the strength back. ... The other stuff comes back pretty quickly."
Asked if he thinks he can still hit 40 home runs at less than full strength, Howard again said: "We'll see. We'll see."
The Phillies are almost certain to open the season without either Howard or second baseman Chase Utley in their lineup. And it's likely they'll be without both of them for an extended period. But Howard said he couldn't let Utley's absence, because of issues with both knees, affect the pace of his own recovery.
"With my situation, with Chase's situation, we both know that the best thing we have to do is take our time and make sure we're 100 percent," Howard said. "It doesn't make sense for either one of us to try to rush back. ... So for me, I'm just trying to stay on my path. And Chase is on his path."
"I'm not worried about our team," Howard added. "This isn't the first set of injuries that we've had, and it's not going to be the last. We've dealt with injuries over the past three or four years. We've never been that team to make excuses. We've got a lot of capable guys. If people want to look at it how they want to look at it, we've got a great group of guys -- and it all starts here in spring training -- that can go out there and do the job."