It looked like he was seeing the ball real well. He made the Atlanta pitchers throw strikes. He used the whole field. He took what they gave him. His bat was on the ball the whole series.
Even after his performance in Atlanta, Howard ranked just 19th in OPS (.742) among 28 first basemen with at least 175 plate appearances. Each of the other four NL East teams has a first baseman ahead of him: the Mets' Lucas Duda (.786), the Marlins' Garrett Jones (.777), the Nationals' Adam LaRoche (.901) and the Braves' Freddie Freeman (.855).
Howard is generally reluctant to talk expansively about himself, but he had a strong assessment of the Phillies as a team.
"I don't think we've ever really been out of it," he said. "We've played hot and cold, but we've been six, seven, eight, nine games out of it. You want to definitely handle these types of games against the division rivals. This is a step in the right direction."
It was Wil Nieves' third hit of the afternoon, and his second double, but it may have come at a price.
In the ninth inning, the backup catcher pulled up lame between first and second and then left the game with quad soreness. He was hopeful that he would be able to avoid the disabled list, but don't be surprised if the Phillies end up summoning a catcher to St. Louis. Cameron Rupp, a 40-man roster member, would be the likely choice.
"I felt it a little on my first double, felt it tighten and then it went away," Nieves said. "But yeah, my last at-bat between first and second I felt a little pop. I have never done anything like that, so I was a little afraid of walking on it. They said it was mild, and usually I'm a quick healer, so hopefully that's the case. I'm feeling a cramp in my hamstring, so I think I just need hydration. I tried to drink a lot of water and Gatorade, but it still got me."
Asche return imminent
It's a pretty good bet that the Phillies get their regular third baseman back this weekend, although manager Ryne Sandberg stopped short of saying that Cody Asche would be activated from the disabled list in time for tonight's game in St. Louis.
Asche, a St. Louis native who was on fire at the plate when he went down with a hamstring strain a month ago, has destroyed minor league pitching in his first four rehab appearances, going 6-for-10 with two doubles, two home runs, seven RBI and three walks.
Righthander Jonathan Pettibone had shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum yesterday. The Phillies are hopeful he will be ready to throw by the start of spring training. The official name of the injury, performed by Dr. James Andrews: Type II Superior Labral Antero-Posterior tear.
Jimmy Rollins got the day off. He was replaced by Cesar Hernandez at shortstop . . . Outfielder Ben Revere was out of the lineup for a second straight day with a sore knee. He will be re-evaluated today.