LAKEWOOD, N.J. -- Ryan Howard went 2 for 4 with three RBIs on Thursday night to start a minor league rehab assignment that the Philadelphia Phillies will watch closely as they determine whether they will be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline.
The 32-year-old former National League MVP said he is no longer worried about his Achilles tendon, and just needs to refine his timing and baserunning before being ready to rejoin the struggling Phils.
Howard began the second inning for Class A Lakewood by grounding out to the right of the second base bag, where the West Virginia Power shortstop playing in a shift gloved it.
But unlike last year, when he crumpled to the ground with a ruptured Achilles as the Phillies' season ended in Game 5 of the NL Division Series, this groundout was full of promise. More than eight months after his injury was the defining image of the Phillies' postseason failure, Howard was back on the field in the same Jersey Shore stadium where he starred as a minor leaguer in 2002.
"It felt good," Howard said. "The running part was the biggest thing."
And on that score Howard pronounced himself good to go.
"I didn't really think about it," he said. "Adrenaline kicked in. I'm not worried about my Achilles at all."
In his second-inning groundout, Howard hustled down the first base line with no apparent difficulty. In the fourth, he hit a two-run single up the middle on the first pitch, then had to scamper back to first when the next batter flied out to the warning track.
"It felt really good being able to run back and slide, pop-up slide," Howard said. "It's just getting back into game situations."
He followed with another single to nearly the same spot in the fifth, beating a wide throw to first, and struck out swinging in the seventh.
Howard came to the plate for the fifth time in the bottom of the ninth with Lakewood trailing 6-4 and the bases loaded. He launched a drive to deep left-center, bringing the sellout crowd of 8,000 to its feet, but the ball was caught on the warning track for a sacrifice fly. The next batter hit a two-run single to give Lakewood a 7-6 win in the South Atlantic League game.
Howard said he expects to feel some soreness Friday, but did not expect it to be bad. He also said he should be ready to play the field soon.
"I've been taking ground balls every day for the past month and a half," he said. "At some point I have to get out there."
Howard, a three-time All-Star, was the designated hitter at FirstEnergy Park as the BlueClaws took on the Power. In keeping with long-running tradition when a major leaguer rehabs with a minor league club, he treated his new teammates to steak dinners, a step up from their typical clubhouse fare.
How well -- and quickly -- Howard progresses through rehab, along with how well Chase Utley does in his own return from injury, may well determine what the Phillies do at the trade deadline. Philadelphia lost a 5-4 decision to Pittsburgh earlier in the day for the Phillies' second straight loss after a modest win streak. They sit in last place in the NL East, nine games behind Washington. Utley returned on Wednesday, and homered in his first at-bat.
Howard said he's anxious to return to the Phillies, but will be cautious not to rush back before he's ready. If his rehab goes the full 20 days, Howard could rejoin the Phillies on July 18 in Los Angeles against the Dodgers.
"I've been patient for eight, nine months now," he said. "Another week or two is not going to kill me."