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The powerful first baseman has produced an impressive answer.
After leading all minor-leaguers in home runs last season, Howard has spent what would seem like unnecessary additional time in the minors. He has used that time to develop into the most complete all-around hitter in the International League, which is usually the tougher of the two Class AAA leagues on hitters.
Howard is stuck in the minors primarily because he plays the same position occupied by Jim Thome on the parent Philadelphia Phillies.
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound, left-handed hitter made it to Philadelphia on a September call-up last season and then earlier this season when Thome was sidelined by a back injury.
After returning to Scranton, Howard has torn up the International League for the Red Barons in what the 25-year-old is attempting to make his last trip to the minors.
"I've always heard that it's somewhat easier to get there, but the hard part is being able to stay," Howard said. "It was nice getting a little taste, seeing the competition and how guys throw."
There is nothing minor-league pitchers throw that Howard can not handle.
Howard was the Paul Owens Award winner as the top position player in the Phillies farm system in both 2003 and 2004. Last season, he drove in a run per game at both stops. He hit .297 with 37 home runs and 102 RBIs in 102 games at Class AA Reading before batting .270 with nine homers and 29 RBIs in 29 games with the Red Barons.
"I can't carry the numbers over from last year to this year," Howard said in a preseason interview.
Instead of carrying those numbers into 2005, Howard has reshaped them into a new combination that is just as dominant.
Through the middle of last week, Howard was leading the International League in batting average (.386), on-base percentage (.476) and slugging percentage (.727). And, he was still hitting home runs at close to the same pace as last season with 14 in 50 games despite playing more often at Lackawanna County Stadium, a tough home run park.
Red Barons manager Gene Lamont greeted Howard's arrival to open the season here by saying, "I want Ryan to play in the big leagues, but I think right now this is the best place for him."
Howard goes out every day and makes a case for that no longer being true. On June 21, he extended his hitting streak to 24 games and hit his 14th home run during a 6-5 win over Columbus.
After a slow start in his 12 games in Philadelphia, Howard wound up hitting .214 with a homer for the Phillies. His 19-game tryout last September produced two homers and a .282 average.
It is hard to argue with the Phillies for showing patience with Thome, who has just five homers and a .218 average through 51 games. The man has nine straight seasons of at least 30 homers and an average of 47.5 over the past four.
Finding a place for Howard, however, should be a priority. He appears to be too good to just become trade bait.
Howard dabbled with a move to left field during spring training, but so far that is not being repeated in Scranton.
"Anybody who's asked to change positions, at first has moments of disapproval," Howard said. "But then you embrace it; whatever gets you to the big leagues."
Something has to happen eventually. There is no purpose in Howard continuing to rip up the International League.
Red Barons fans do not have to worry.
The Phillies amazingly have another first baseman ripping up the minors just one step behind Howard.
Randy Ruiz is leading the Eastern League in batting average and slugging percentage with Reading. He has 16 home runs, 51 RBIs and a .360 batting average. Although at 27 years old Ruiz is not the type of prospect Howard is, he is showing the capabilities of providing power and average in the middle of a minor-league lineup.
WEEK IN REVIEW
Montrose graduate Rich Thompson extended his hitting streak to eight games before his hottest stretch at the plate this season ended.
Thompson, playing for the Class AA Altoona Curve, went 17-for-33 (.515) during his hitting streak. He had at least two hits in all but one game of the streak.
Thompson has scored 29 runs in 37 games with Altoona, including scoring from first base on an infield hit in a one-run win over Reading.
THE WEEK AHEAD
The top local high school baseball and softball seniors will be in action in all-star games this week.
Lackawanna League softball players will take part in a game at Mid Valley Wednesday.
The Lackawanna Baseball Challenge is scheduled for Thursday at Lackawanna County Stadium.
TOM ROBINSON writes a weekly local sports column for the Susquehanna County Transcript. He can be reached online at RobbyTR@aol.com.
STEWART Gets Infineon Road Course Win
Sonoma, CA – Tony Stewart took the lead from Ricky Rudd with 10 laps to go in the 110-lap race for a victory in Sunday’s Dodge SaveMart 350 at Infineon Raceway.
After gaining the lead, Stewart withstood a challenge following a yellow for debris on Lap 103. Green flag racing resumed with five laps to go, but Stewart pulled away to win by more than two seconds.
The win was Stewart’s first of the season and the 20th overall win of his career.
“I was driving this car with one hand,” said Stewart. “I lost fourth gear, and then I lost third. Rather than let it break the rest of the way, I was holding it (the gear shifter) with one hand and driving with the other.”
Rudd held off Kurt Busch for second, then ran out of fuel after crossing the finish line.
Kurt Busch, Rusty Wallace, and Dale Jarrett rounded out the top-five.
Meanwhile Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s backward slide continued after he crashed on Lap 3 of the race. He finished 42nd in the race and dropped back to 18th in the points.
Junior started 10th but fell back quickly because of transmission problems. As he completed his second lap, he made contact with Mike Bliss's car and cut a tire. He then spun across the track just before the start-finish line.
"I didn't have first or second gear from the first lap," said a frustrated Earnhardt, who eventually came back on track 14 laps down after repairs.
A few laps later, the transmission in Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 began to hang up in gear, causing him to lose ground. By the time he pitted for repairs under a caution, on Lap 20, Johnson was back in 30th.
Greg Biffle's 14th-place finish was good enough to give him the lead in the Nextel Cup standings by 22 points.
“It’s a great day for us,” said Biffle. “We didn’t have the run we wanted. The last caution hurt us, but what comes round, goes round. I saw the 48 team was laughing at us when we went off the track on qualifying, but that’s the way it goes.”
It is the first time in his career that Biffle has led the Nextel Cup points.
Johnson’s teammate and polesitter, Jeff Gordon came in 33rd.
Top ten finishing order: 1. Tony Stewart, 2. Ricky Rudd, 3. Kurt Busch, 4. Rusty Wallace, 5. Dale Jarrett, 6. Elliott Sadler, 7. Jeremy Mayfield, 8. Ron Fellows, 9. Ryan Newman, 10. Brian Simo.
The Chase For the Championship contenders after 16 of 36: 1. Biffle-2250, 2. Johnson-2228, 3. Sadler-2073, 4. Stewart-2052, 5. Martin-2022, 6. R. Wallace-2013, 7. Newman-1994, 8. Busch-1978, 9. Edwards-1963, 10. McMurray-1923, 11. Mayfield-1902, 12. Jarrett-1870, 13. Harvick-1855.
Note: All these drivers are within 400 points of the leader.
WHAT IS A “RINGER” – The term “ringer”, when used in racing terms, means bringing a driver who possesses a particular skill to a team, in order to give that team an edge. Ringers are most often used in road course events. In a different time they might have been referred to as “hired guns.”
For the 1993 event road racing expert Dorsey Schroeder subbed for Greg Sacks in the Country Time Ford for a 33rd place finish and Kendall, driving for Jimmy Hensley, placed 22nd. Kendall was back in 1996, replacing Bill Elliott. Kendall started 28th and finished in the 28th spot.
In recent years, Brian Simo, famed sports car driver, competed in Junie Donlavey’s Ford finishing 36th in 2000. Boris Said placed 42nd after an engine expired in Jimmy Spencer’s Ford. Said came back in 2001 to finish 11th in the Jasper engines No. 77. Canadian road racing ace Ron Fellows finished 25th in the 2002 event driving Joe Nemechek’s Chevrolet.
The 2004 Dodge/Save Mart 350 saw German driver Klaus Graf take the green flag in a BAM Motorsports Dodge. Graf finished 17th while Boris Said drove Nelson Bowers’ Chevrolet to a 6th place finish.
Ron Fellows, driver of the No. 32 Tide Chevrolet was the highest finishing “ringer” in Sunday’s SaveMart 350.
NASCAR To Try Again In Washington – NASCAR and its subsidiary, International Speedway Corp. has secured an option to buy approximately 950 acres in Kitsap County, Wash.
The site would be about a 30-mile drive north from Tacoma, and about halfway between Seattle to Bremerton.
The track probably would have no trouble gaining a NASCAR race because both ISC and NASCAR are controlled by the France family.
Financing plans were not released at last week’s news conference, but Grant Lynch, vice president of ISC and project team leader, estimated $120 million in annual economic impact from the $250 million track and said no new taxes would be required to foot the bill.
In September, ISC officials announced the selection of a site near Marysville for a 75,000-seat track, promising to spend $50 million of the $250 million cost and cover any overruns in exchange for $200 million in public financing. But ISC abandoned that plan after environmental and siting issues arose, and government officials balked at the financing.
ISC then reopened the site selection process across much of western Oregon and Washington.
One advantage of the new site, officials said, was that only one landowner is directly involved, compared with 30 at the Marysville location.
The top-10 Busch Series leaders: 1. Truex Jr.-2320, 2. Sorenson-2313, 3. Bowyer-2279, 4. Edwards-2241, 5. K. Wallace-2133, 6. Hamlin-2032, 7. Lewis-1983, 8. Stremme-1964, 9. Keller-1877, 10. D. Green-1839.
The top-10 Craftsman Trucks Series leaders: 1. Setzer-1614, 2. Hamilton-1579, 3. Musgrave-1570, 4. Hornaday-1493, 5. Craven-1473, 6. Spencer-1437, 7. Sprague-1428, 8. Cook-1416, 9. Crafton-1384, 10. Starr-1372.
The Nextel Cup and Busch teams are at Daytona Beach, while the Craftsman Trucks go to Kansas Speedway.
Friday, July 1, Busch Series Winn Dixie 250, race 18 of 35, 100 laps/250 miles, 7:30 p.m. TV: TNT.
Saturday, July 2, Craftsman Trucks O’Reilly Auto Parts 250, race 12 of 25, 167 laps/250 miles, 3 p.m. TV: Speed Channel.
Nextel Cup Pepsi 400, race 17 of 36, 160 laps/400 miles, 7 p.m. TV: NBC.
Racing Trivia Question: How many Winston Cup championships has Rusty Wallace won?
Last Week’s Question: Which racing family originated the Victory Junction Camp for children? Answer. The Petty Family.
You may read additional stories by the Racing Reporter at www.race500.com. You may write him at P. O. Box 160711, Mobile, AL 36616.
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