LAKEWOOD, N.J. -- A relaxed Ryan Howard made the most of his homecoming to Class A Lakewood, laughing with teammates and belting a three-run homer as the BlueClaws topped the Hagerstown Suns, 7-4.
On a rehab assignment, fans packed FirstEnergy Park to get a glimpse of their former slugger, serenading him with chants of "MVP" following a mammoth three-run drive in the seventh inning that held up as the winner.
"I felt great. Today was the first day," Howard said. "I'm just trying to get my timing back, and I'll go out there tomorrow and see how it feels."
From the looks of it, Howard never lost his timing. The intimidating lefty crushed an RBI double in his second at-bat for the BlueClaws. Showing no signs of the strained left quadriceps that has sidelined him since May 10, the reigning National League MVP finished 2-for-3 with four RBIs and a walk.
"The leg feels great. I don't feel anything when running," Howard said. "I felt good running that double. It was a lot of fun to come back, have a good day, hit a home run and have everyone be a part of that."
Howard, who played in the South Atlantic League for Lakewood in 2002, returned Wednesday to a warm ovation in the first inning. He drew a walk and jogged to first base without issue. In the second, Howard stepped to the plate with a man on second and drilled a ball to deep right-center field, banging it off the wall for standup, run-scoring double. He struck out looking to lead off the bottom of the fifth.
Howard jogged in right field about 40 minutes prior to the game with his teammates. He did some leg-stretching drills with a conditioning coach about 20 minutes before first pitch, then sat in the dugout, the center of attention.
"It felt good to be back here for me," Howard said of his return to Lakewood. "It's a little weird, it all started here."
The first baseman took about 45 minutes of ground balls with Philadelphia Phillies third-base coach Steve Smith on Sunday and reported no pain. The slugger was limited to batting and base running on Wednesday, but spent most of the afternoon on the top dugout step, joking and chatting with teammates.
"It's fun, seeing the looks on some of the guys' faces," Howard said of his newest teammates. "Being out there clowning around with them. It might make their day or their year. It's a lot of fun."
Howard, scheduled to make one more start for the BlueClaws before returning to Philadelphia on Friday, said some of the younger players have asked for his autograph.
"Come up and ask," Howard said with a smile, "It's not that big of a deal."
The BlueClaws (23-30), playing an 11 a.m. game, pulled ahead with a run in the seventh when Jason Donald singled to put runners on the corners for Howard. Suns (19-27) reliever Chris Lugo was burned when Howard belted a pitch the opposite way to left-center, landing in the outfield lawn.
Howard said the early start was not his idea.
"I had to get up at 6 a.m.," Howard said with a laugh. "That's unheard of. An 11 a.m. game? That's rough. I'll be going home and relaxing tonight."
Howard looked as relaxed at the plate Wednesday as he did back when he hit .280 with 19 homers and 87 RBIs in his 2002 campaign for the BlueClaws. He said he wore his socks high to match his Minor League teammates, the first time he's done so since he was last in the Minors.
"I just wanted to come in and be a part of the team," Howard said. "I might keep wearing them though, they got me two hits today."
Howard also joked about how impressed he was with the water bottles the BlueClaws gave him -- they featured a photo of his face on the label. He joked with reporters in a post-game press conference about everything from American Idol predictions to his lack of interest in watching Roger Clemens in Trenton later in the day. When told his four runs batted in tied him with Randy Ruiz for Lakewood's career record at 91, the slugger seemed surprised.
"Did I really?" he asked, "That's awesome!"
Howard said he'd been anxious to return to the Phillies since he was placed on the DL. He said he probably could have played through the injury had it come during a September pennant race.
"Not going to push myself," Howard said. "I'm just trying to have good at bats, just go out there and play."
Reliever Garet Hill (3-1) earned the win, allowing one run on two hits in 1 2/3 innings. Darren Byrd started and allowed three runs -- one earned -- on five hits and three walks. He struck out six in 6 1/3 innings. Ron Hill tossed a perfect ninth, striking out one for his eighth save.
Lugo (0-2) suffered the loss, thanks to Howard's long ball. The New Jersey native allowed four runs on four hits and a walk, striking out three in 1 2/3 frames. Hagerstown starter Yunior Novoa was tagged for three runs on nine hits and two walks, striking out two over five innings.
Donald went 2-for-4 and knocked in a pair of runs for Lakewood, while P.J. Antoniato had three hits and an RBI.
Brett McMillan went 2-for-3 with a pair of RBIs for the Suns and Marcos Cabral added two hits and a run scored. The Suns took a quick 2-0 lead in the first but Howard's double knotted the game, 2-2, in the third.
"The game is the game. It's the same," Howard said, in comparison to the Major Leagues. "I try to keep it fun and keep it loose for everyone else, too."