"It's just trying to get comfortable," Howard said. "I stayed back and saw it. When I'm doing that, I have good swings."
Howard's 33rd homer of the season helped erase a stretch in which he has hit .211 with four homers and 12 RBIs in the 16 games since Utley broke his hand, including 26 strikeouts in 57 at-bats. While Jimmy Rollins (.318, eight extra-base hits) and Pat Burrell (.352, five homers) haven't had noticeable dropoffs during that same stretch, Howard found life difficult.
With his swing on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, against one of the two teams Philadelphia must beat to reach the postseason, Howard delivered a knockout blow to an inning that had already heavily swayed in the Phillies' favor.
The Phillies received a huge break to start the inning from second-base umpire Brian Runge. Rollins singled and was running to second base on Tadahito Iguchi's grounder to
Martin Prado, who fed shortstop Yunel Escobar.
Escobar didn't touch second base, and Runge called Rollins safe, disregarding the decades-old "in the neighborhood" call in which a middle infielder gets a putout on a force play. Instead, Escobar was charged with an error. First-base umpire Bruce Froemming then gave the Phillies another boost by calling Iguchi safe at first.
Braves manager Bobby Cox stormed out to argue, and nearly passed John McGraw as the all-time leader in career ejections.
"I was surprised he called him safe, but I was happy about it," manager Charlie Manuel said.
"It's the right play," Rollins said. "[Runge] called it right. That's the way it's supposed to be played. You step on the bag and get the call. He clearly missed the bag. I was just trying to get there and knock [Escobar] into left field, to make sure he didn't turn two. Bruce Froemming then made Philly happy with the call at first."
Howard really made them happy when he followed Burrell's popout with his homer.
In a series high on drama, the Phillies spotted the Braves the lead in all three games. They roared back on Friday to win and nearly did the same on Saturday. Starter Jamie Moyer began Sunday by allowing three straight hits, putting the Phillies in a 2-0 hole.
Philadelphia answered with a run in the first, but was denied a second when Burrell was gunned down at home by Jeff Francoeur. The rifle-armed right fielder added another victim in the fourth when he nailed Jayson Werth at the plate.
Rollins tested Francoeur again in the seventh after leading off with a triple, when Burrell sent a fly to medium-right field. Francoeur overthrew catcher Brian McCann and nearly sent it over the Braves' dugout.
"I got a chance, and speed made him throw it into the dugout," Rollins said.
While the offense put the runs on the board, the bullpen played a key role in keeping Atlanta from scoring. Moyer tired in the seventh, when he surrendered an RBI double to Prado, who then went to third on a flyout by pinch-hitter Chris Woodward.
With the tying run on third and one out, Manuel went to Antonio Alfonseca. The excitable closer struck out Escobar and Matt Diaz, then celebrated with a hard-to-describe
"I liked that," said Tom Gordon, who simply points to the sky after a save. "I haven't seen that since Florida [when Alfonseca was the closer]. I used to watch that. I like that. Those outs were the game right there."
A game the Phillies needed to win, keeping them three games behind the Mets and vaulting them a half-game ahead of the third-place Braves.
"It was a big series for both teams," Howard said. "Everybody knows what's at stake. These division games are huge. Both teams are in the Wild Card, but are close enough to still try and win the division, so the Wild Card goes to where the Wild Card goes.
"With what we've been through all year, all the injuries we've had, being where we are right now is a great feeling. A lot of people didn't think we'd be here with all the injuries. Playing against [the Braves], with the pickups they made, and us being short-handed, we'd had guys step up and we've become closer as a team."