WASHINGTON — When Ryan Howard was Ryan Howard, he was capable of carrying the Phillies for a month at a time.
Devastating leg injuries ended his prime prematurely, but Howard has looked rejuvenated in 2015, putting together his longest hot streak in years.
Over the last calendar month, Howard has hit .303 in 30 games with 10 home runs, 21 RBIs, 18 extra-base hits and a .661 slugging percentage.
At .550, he's leapt to seventh in the National League in slugging percentage for the season, behind only Bryce Harper, Adrian Gonzalez, Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, Anthony Rizzo and Todd Frazier.
After several years of looking like one of the worst players in baseball — remember this discussion? — Howard is again hitting like one of the game's most feared sluggers.
"It was the vintage Ryan Howard that I've grown accustomed to seeing," teammate Cole Hamels said Saturday after Howard's solo home run and RBI double helped the lefty earn his fourth straight win (see game story).
"Especially that home run he hit, that's the Ryan Howard I know and have always known, that type of power. He's been really putting the ball and taking a good approach the past few weeks. It's good to see."
This 30-game stretch from Howard is exactly what the Phillies need. It has boosted their offense, previously the worst in the league in runs scored and OPS. More importantly, it has boosted Howard's trade value, which was nonexistent through the first few weeks of April.
Howard and the Phillies attribute his recent success to just feeling healthy and confident. Howard admitted Saturday that physically, he's feeling the best he's felt in years.
“It was probably when I had two good Achilles’ back then," Howard said of the last time he felt this good. "It’s probably a safe assumption it was [before the injury]. I have two good [Achilles] now, I guess."
"Injuries, they really do take a toll," Hamels continued. "I think people kind of look at us as we're supposed to overcome it the moment we're back out on the field, the injury's not supposed to affect you physically or mentally. Some injuries take their toll. And then you put the pressure on you, so I think finally when you get into that and you start to believe in yourself or you try to enjoy the game a little bit more, good things happen.
"And I think that's what we've been able to see and I believe that's what we're going to see a lot more of. It's nice to see because I know [Howard] feels healthy. And with that, his confidence is there, and now his approach at the plate is getting better and better each game and each week. But it's the type of player he always has been."
The more extra-base hits Howard accumulates, the more convinced American League teams will be that he's worth acquiring. Howard's best tool is his power and his worst tool is his defense, making him a logical fit as a designated hitter at this point in his career.
And you know what? The totals for DHs are down across the board.
Entering play Saturday, AL designated hitters had collectively hit .255/.326/.413 with an average of eight doubles and five homers.
Howard is hitting .268/.314/.550 with 10 doubles and 10 homers. If the numbers were only slightly better than the typical AL DH, Howard wouldn't appear as enticing. But right now, he'd represent a substantial upgrade for several American League teams.
Three that stick out as fits are the Angels, Rays and Twins.
The Angels' offense has been almost entirely Mike Trout and Kole Calhoun, with Albert Pujols, David Freese and Erick Aybar providing very little. C.J. Cron has been a disappointment, heightening the need for some left-handed pop. The Angels don't need help for October, they need help if they want to win the division, because the Astros are for real.
The Rays have a glaring lack of lefty thump. When they were at their best, Evan Longoria was protected by Carlos Pena, another powerful left-handed hitter with holes in his swing. Tampa is currently leading the AL East but every team in the division is in the race, so it'll need to find a way to separate itself.
Then there's the Twins, a team that nobody had contending in 2015 but which has gone 24-18 so far. Minnesota doesn't have a true presence in the middle of the order.
Others have mentioned the Mariners and Orioles as possibilities, but that's tougher to envision. Seattle is already well set up with Seth Smith and Nelson Cruz splitting DH duty. Baltimore has red-hot Jimmy Paredes and Delmon Young hitting well out of the designated hitter spot.
The other aspect of all this is the return. When Howard's value was at an all-time low over the offseason, many assumed the Phillies' intent was simply to clear payroll by moving him. But now? Why take on a giant portion of Howard's salary and trade a productive power hitter — in a game devoid of it — just to say you did?
Maybe Howard's hot streak enables the Phillies to take on less of his salary in a trade. Maybe it enhances their return prospect-wise. They wouldn't get an A-lister, but they could probably bring in a young arm or an outfielder with some projectability.
Or maybe no worthwhile offer materializes and the Phils find it more logical to hold onto Howard rather than trade for him next to nothing in return.
Whatever happens … who thought we'd be having this conversation on Memorial Day?