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05/27/09 8:13 PM ET

Howard making impact with better D

Infielder once known just for power has improved in field

PHILADELPHIA -- Ryan Howard heard recently that Doug Mientkiewicz paid him a couple compliments on his improved defense at first base.

Mientkiewicz is regarded as one of the better defensive first basemen in the game.

Or as Howard put it, "Mientkiewicz is pretty sick."

Howard has been pretty sick, too. He committed his first error of the season Wednesday in a 5-3 victory over the Marlins at Citizens Bank Park. His .998 fielding percentage entering Wednesday is fourth-best in the National League. This is coming from a first baseman who led all Major Leaguers at that position with 19 errors last season and with 45 errors from 2006-08.

Howard aimed to change his label as an offense-only player before the season. He arrived in Clearwater, Fla., early for Spring Training and put in extra hours working on his defense with third-base coach Sam Perlozzo.

It appears to have paid off.

Howard has been more accurate with his throws, save Wednesday's throwing error. He has been quicker to the ball, too, making several diving catches. In fact, Howard's defense has been so good that the 6-foot-4, 248-pound first baseman has more stolen bases (two) than errors more than a quarter of the way through the season.

"I'm on a tear right now," Howard joked about his stolen bases.

Howard has helped make the Phillies one of the best fielding teams in baseball. They entered Thursday's series finale against the Marlins leading baseball with a .991 fielding percentage. They had made just 14 errors, which is the fewest in the Majors. The Phillies set a team record with 12 consecutive errorless games April 17-29.

Having the fewest errors in baseball has helped a pitching staff that has needed help at times.

"I don't know," said Howard, when asked if he thinks he is getting to balls quicker this season. "Obviously, I'm lighter."

Howard weighed about 279 pounds last season. He weighs about 30 pounds less today.

Exercise? Improved diet?

"I attribute it to my modeling career," Howard joked.

But it is more than just weight loss. It's is better footwork, which gets him into better position to catch the ball -- and make those diving stops he has been making this season.

"From the start of the season, he's definitely above average," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "He's been playing tremendous. I've had managers and coaches on other teams say something about it. They say how his defense has improved."

Gold Glove?

"I haven't really thought about it," Howard said. "It's a long season."

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.