PHILADELPHIA (AP) -When he connects, the Phillies' Ryan Howard can hit the ball a long way. Making contact is the slugger's biggest problem.
The reigning NL MVP is on pace to set the major league record for strikeouts in a season. Howard had 151 strikeouts in 108 games entering Philadelphia's game against San Diego on Friday night.
At this rate, Howard would finish with 201 Ks. Adam Dunn set the record by striking out 195 times for Cincinnati in 2004.
``He's got to start feeling comfortable, see the ball better and start swinging at strikes,'' manager Charlie Manuel said. ``Get a good ball to hit is the first rule of hitting.''
Despite his propensity for strikeouts, Howard had 33 homers and 99 RBIs and was batting .256 before facing Greg Maddux and the Padres. For most, those are excellent power numbers. But Howard is coming off perhaps the best season ever by a sophomore player, swatting 58 homers with 149 RBIs and a .313 average last year. He won the Rookie of the Year award in 2005 after replacing injured Jim Thome in July.
Howard spent a lot of time on the banquet circuit in the offseason and struggled in spring training. He was bothered by leg problems early in the year and missed two weeks because of a quad strain in May. After returning from the disabled list, Howard regained his stroke. He hit .280 with 10 homers and 27 RBIs in June, and batted .323 with 10 homers and 29 RBIs in July.
But Howard has slumped badly this month. Since All-Star second baseman Chase Utley broke his hand on July 26, Howard was hitting just .187 (17-for-91) with only four homers, 14 RBIs and 40 strikeouts.
Is he pressing with Utley out of the lineup and the Phillies in a playoff race?
``I see a guy that's trying too hard,'' Manuel said. ``Once things start going bad for you, it starts messing with your head.''
Howard may also be trying to prove he deserves a multimillion-dollar, long-term contract. He signed a $900,000 one-year deal in the spring after his agent and the Phillies couldn't agree on a longer contract. Howard isn't eligible for free agency until 2011.
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