Sept. 7, 2010
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
It is fair to say that ex-Lobo Justin Howard limped his way into the Pittsburgh Pirates' organization. In 2011, the limp should be gone and the Pirates should see the real Howard - the one who was one of the more feared hitters in college baseball.
"I wasn't even expected to play this season," said Howard of his 15 games at the Pirates' rookie level in the Gulf Coast League. "I think I surprised a lot of people. I just went in and put in the work on my knee and at the end of the day I would ask for more."
If you are familiar with the kind of baseball players produced by Lobo coach Ray Birmingham, you aren't surprised that Howard rallied in August and hit .341 off 44 at-bats. Birmingham's Lobos are blue-collar tough. They also smash the heck out of a baseball.
If you are familiar with the type of player Howard is, you figure there aren't too many injuries severe enough to keep him down for very long. Still, the blow to Howard came at almost the worst time for a baseball player - during the NCAA Tournament and shortly before the major league draft.
A first-inning collision at home plate vs. Minnesota did some damage to Howard's left knee. The injury was diagnosed as a tear to the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL). In most cases with minor tears of the PCL, the injury is treated with rehab to strengthen the knee and return flexibility. Still, the Pirates took a look-see prior to signing any papers with Howard.
"I flew to Pittsburgh to figure out exactly what was wrong," said Howard. Since the injury was minor, and since Howard is an exceptional ball masher, the Pirates signed him up. He was assigned to rookie ball and it was pretty much viewed as a throwaway season for the slightly damaged Howard.
Of course, there was frustration. Howard didn't head into pro baseball to sit the bench.
"I could tell the knee was a little weak," he said. "It definitely was weaker than my right one. It's something I'll have to maintain my whole life.
"I was pretty satisfied with the season, but I'm not the type of player who is ever satisfied. I know I surprised some people with what I was able to do, but any injury is frustrating to a ballplayer. I just tried to approach (rehab) with a day-to-day attitude, but it seems you always try to do things you aren't ready to do."
One thing Howard expects to be ready for in 2011, "is run out onto the field without a limp."
Howard led the Lobos and the NCAA in hitting (.456) and in hits (119). His .456 average was the tops ever in the Mountain West Conference and he also set a MWC record with doubles.
Howard was one of another impressive crop of draftees coming out of Birmingham's soaring program at UNM.
In 2010, Rafael Neda went to the Milwaukee Brewers, Ryan Honeycutt went to the San Francisco Giants, Kenny Toves went to the Florida Marlins, and the Seattle Mariners chose Willy Kesler. Lobo Edwin Carl signed a free-agent contract in July with the Kansas City Royals.
"There are a lot of expectations at UNM for Lobos," said coach Birmingham. "We expect excellence in the classroom and on the field as Lobos, but we also do whatever we can to help our players get to the next level and fulfill their dreams."
There were ex-Lobos dreaming in 2009, too, as Cole White (sixth round), Brian Cavazos-Galvez (12th), Mike Brownstein (14th), John Hesketh (20th), Cameron Monger (27th) and Dane Hamilton (41st) were called up to pro ball.