Rich Hofmann | Howard turns up the energy a notch

Posted: August 08, 2007

THE MEDICAL missive arrived from the Phillies and the shadows lengthened.

Optimism gave way to realism. After having the stitches removed following surgery on his broken right hand, Chase Utley won't even see the doctor again until Aug. 20.

And the Phillies beat the Marlins, 11-1.

Business is being taken care of. The Phillies are doing more than just hanging around. They toss in the occasional infuriation because, well, it is in their DNA. And the odds remain against them finding a way to get this done.

But in the here and now, they are doing as much as anyone could expect. Bad news has had little effect. And a man named Ryan Howard chose this night, the night when Utley's timetable grew a little longer, to grab a game and make it his own.

With his bat, with his legs, Howard took this one. The two home runs were only a part of the story, homers that brought his season's total to 32. Because Howard also ran hard and was called safe at first base on a first-inning grounder, preventing a doubleplay and allowing Jimmy Rollins to score from third. And Howard ran hard again in the third inning, scoring from second on a single by Jayson Werth.

His power at the plate is oft-discussed, for good reason. But this was the entire, energetic package on a miserably steamy night at Citizens Bank Park. And at a time when Utley and some of the other energy guys on the roster are down with injuries - Shane Victorino and Michael Bourn, to name two - this was a real stylistic statement for the reigning National League Most Valuable Player.

"I think any time when Ryan Howard is playing real good, hitting the ball, I think he's a leader in that kind of way," manager Charlie Manuel said. "I think people look around and they want to play with him. They want to hit with him. They want to play with him. They get excited when they see him hit like he did tonight.

"And that kind of creates energy," Manuel said. "The game just kind of takes off. They kind of feed off one another. I think that's what happens."

Utley was hit by that pitch on July 26. The Phillies could not pretend to be the same team without him. Such was Utley's contribution, his nightly predilection for ignition. No one was going to take his place. No one player could try.

So they all have.

Without Utley, the Phils are 7-4.

In those 11 games, they are averaging 6.9 runs nightly - compared to 5.4 per game before Utley was hurt.

In those 11 games, their team ERA is 3.76 - compared to 4.81 before July 26.

First man to last, there has not been a real hiccup. They have pounded the weaker teams they have played and done well enough against the rest.

And on this night, Howard was the one who led them. It really is a sight worth seeing. You can argue that it was a coincidence that Howard chose this night, the night when Utley's got his latest news from the doctor, to grab the game and grab the night. It is a dangerous task, though, arguing against Howard's ability to seize a moment.

Last year, from the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game almost until the very end, he lifted the Phillies. Wes Helms, who wasn't here last season, saw what happened last night and had no doubt what he had just witnessed.

"He's picking up the slack here with some of the injuries we have," Helms said. "I think that has something to do with it: He's stepping it up. He's told himself he has to step it up."

Howard has the pedigree, and that cannot be disputed. He also has the help, from the top of the lineup to the bottom. This team really has not blinked in the face of a terrible string of injuries, led by Utley. This team really has not shown itself to be shaken in the least. It might not be good enough in the end, but there is little question that this particular roster is giving you everything it has.

"We like to play baseball," Manuel said. "I think that's why people come to see our team play."

And last night, Ryan Howard led them.

Next?

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Send e-mail to hofmanr@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/hofmann.

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