But unlike last year, when he crumpled to the ground with a ruptured Achilles as the Phillies' season ended in Game 5 of the National League 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 Thursday night in the same Jersey shore stadium where he starred as a minor leaguer.
The 32-year-old former NL MVP began a rehab assignment with the Class A Lakewood BlueClaws, where he played in 2002.
He grounded out deep to second in his first at bat, and hustled down the first base line with no apparent difficulty. In the fourth, he singled up the middle on the first pitch he saw. He followed with another single to nearly the same spot in the fifth, beating a wide throw to first.
Howard, a three-time All-Star, was the designated hitter at FirstEnergy Park as the BlueClaws took on the West Virginia Power.
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 5-4 decision to Pittsburgh earlier in the day for the Phillies' second straight loss after a modest win streak, and they sit in last place in the NL East, nine games behind Washington. Utley returned on Wednesday, and homered in his first at-bat.
He wore uniform No. 52; the team had retired his No. 29 in 2010 and would have gladly un-retired it, but the BlueClaws were wearing light-blue throwback uniforms in the style of the 1970s Phils that had to be ordered months earlier, well before it was apparent Howard would be playing in Lakewood.
Howard had been doing rehab work and conditioning exercises in Clearwater, Fla., since April, and got clearance on Wednesday to begin game action on Thursday.
If his rehab goes the full 20 days, Howard could rejoin the Phillies July 18 in Los Angeles against the Dodgers.
During a visit to Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia shortly before Utley homered, Howard said he felt good but cautioned he might not feel 100 percent until next season.
Howard has made previous rehab starts in Lakewood while recuperating from injuries in 2007 and 2010.