Through its first three-quarters or so, Ryan Howard's 2009 season hasn't followed the pattern of any of his first four. It's really featured neither the lengthy dear-god-how-does-this-guy-ever-get-a-hit slumps, nor the corresponding tears where he carries the team for weeks at a time with a barrage of tape-measure home runs. Add in the reduced (though still high) strikeout rate and the much-improved defense, and at times it's been almost hard to recognize the man wearing #6.
Howard's performance Sunday night in Atlanta, however, was reminiscent of his 2006 MVP campaign, or the torrid September he turned in last year that carried the Phillies to the NL East title. The slugger accounted for all four runs against tough Braves righty Javier Vazquez with two home runs, a solo shot to left center in the second inning that put the Phils up 1-0 and a majestic three-run blast to right in the sixth that broke a 1-1 tie. Howard finished the night 3-3 with a walk, adding a handful of fine plays in the field as the Phillies finally took a series win against the Braves and left Atlanta six games back in the NL East.
J.A. Happ provided the rest of the story, hanging in for 7 2/3 innings despite uncharacteristic wildness: Happ walked a career-high six on the evening. But he held the Braves to three hits, including a Matt Diaz home run, and continued his unfathomable (and probably unsustainable) success with runners in scoring position: Atlanta stranded nine men in all, including men on second and third in the first and the bases loaded in the sixth. Three Phillies relievers combined to record the last four outs, with Ryan Madson finishing the eighth, Scott Eyre retiring lefty batters Adam LaRoche and Ryan Church to start the ninth before walking Greg Norton, and Brad Lidge coming on for the final out, a popup of Omar Infante.
The Phils lead the second-place Marlins by 4.5 games heading into tomorrow's off-day, with a three-game set at home against the Diamondbacks to start Tuesday night.