"It's plain as day, I don't feel comfortable," said Howard, whose average sank to .182. "Not to take anything away form [Oliver] Perez, he threw well. Once I get comfortable, I'll be all right."
Howard's performance symbolized a second futile effort in which the Phillies came close, but couldn't topple their National League East rivals. The Phils left 12 men on base, including three in a crucial eighth inning when they appeared to have the Mets teetering.
In that key spot, the Phillies trailed, 4-1, but loaded the bases with one out off relievers Joe Smith and Pedro Feliciano. They watched as Aaron Heilman and his 8.10 career ERA against Philadelphia dashed in from the bullpen.
Pinch-hitter Carlos Ruiz pulled the Phillies to within two with a drive to left that dropped in front of Angel Pagan, who got a late break on the ball. Geoff Jenkins worked the count to 3-1, then swung through two Heilman fastballs.
Jayson Werth challenged for nine pitches before also striking out. Though Billy Wagner recorded the save with a perfect ninth, the credit goes to Heilman.
"He did his job, unfortunately," Phils starter Jamie Moyer said.
"We had a good chance to win the game and didn't get it done," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "Our pitching has been consistent enough for us to have a winning record. We've left a lot of runners on base. We've had chances to get big hits and haven't done it."
Perez channeled Johan Santana for 5 2/3 innings, albeit without the pinpoint precision of his fellow Mets lefty. Perez handcuffed the Phillies, despite allowing nine baserunners.
Jose Reyes and David Wright drove in two runs apiece for New York, while Philadelphia's Chase Utley homered in his third straight game.
Regardless of what happens in Sunday night's finale, the Mets have won the first two series between the teams, helping to erase memories of losing the last seven meetings of 2007. Playing without Jimmy Rollins (sprained left ankle) for the 10th straight game, Philadelphia has dropped four of five games to New York.
"Our bats always come around slow in April," Howard said. "If we finish April at .500 or above, we'll be all right."
Howard hopes he'll be all right, once he finds his comfort zone. Having to deal with southpaws Santana and Perez in the past two days hasn't helped. Howard said he wasn't comfortable with moving closer to the plate, a change suggested by Manuel.
His teammates feel he and the rest of the offense will be fine.
"I'm not really worried about it," Moyer said. "These guys are professional hitters. They're good players, they're working hard. Ultimately, that's what I'm going to respect, as long as they're giving a good effort, and I feel like everybody is. Unfortunately, we fell short. We fell short [Friday] night, too."