Ryan Howard is not known for his defense but he was plenty defensive in front of his locker when he met with the media for his initial discourse of the spring.

“Are you happy to be here,” a journalist asked Howard. The Phillie with the second most homers in club history, who has never been so sleek, raised his eyebrows and fired back. “Are you happy that I’m here?”

“Overjoyed,” a scribe, who failed at humor 101, answered.

This is the most uncomfortable and awkward spring training of Howard’s career, which can be divided up into two parts, very productive and the post-Achillies injury.

Howard impressed during the spring training opener against the New York Yankees. He singled twice and drove in the Phillies first run of the Grapefruit League season. He beat the shift by lofting a ball to shallow left field and he lined a single to right in two at bats..

“I’m just trying to get hits, put the ball in play and make things happen,” Howard said. “

That would be huge for Howard and the Phillies since the Big Piece has been at the top of the unproductive out chart, courtesy of strikeouts, since he came up lame making the final out of the 2011 NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals.

“He (Howard) really is the key for us,” Ben Revere said. “He’s been hurt. He’s been through a lot over the last couple of seasons. If he could do what he’s capable of doing, that changes everything for this team.”

Cliff Lee agrees. “We all saw what he can do,” Lee said. “If Ryan Howard hits like he’s capable, he’s the difference maker.”

Howard has dropped about 15 pounds. “I cut out the sugar,” Howard said. “I really don’t need it and I feel so much better.”

The Phillies lightning rod has been arriving early and working hard at camp. “I’m doing all the extra work in the morning, ground balls, hitting, conditioning, everything that goes on in between. One we get into the season, the easy part is just playing the game. If I can make it through all of  this, then I think I will be alright.”

If is the key word. If Howard remains healthy and if he plays well. He looked good at the plate and made a nice play at first ranging to his right. Howard actually looked nimble. This is a small step but the the slugger, who was once the most feared hitter in the game looks like he’s moving in the right direction.

“I’m just trying to stay positive,” Howard said. “Why be negative? It takes a lot more energy to be negative than to be positive. Negative bad. Positive good.”