Howard homers, puts Phils atop NL East

Phils stand alone atop NL East

ATLANTA -- Somewhere in the latter innings, while the Phillies chipped away at a Braves lead in Atlanta, the Mets cracked open the door to first place by dropping their third straight game.

As has been their rude way in September, Philadelphia barged in and nearly ripped the thing from its fragile hinges. On the strength of five straight wins -- the latest a thrilling 8-7 victory over the Braves at Turner Field on Tuesday -- this team of home wreckers is poised to prop its feet on the couch and order a few bottles of champagne.

With 11 games remaining in the 2008 edition of the regular season, the Phillies re-captured the National League East's top spot. The Mets dropped a 1-0 game to Washington, granting Philadelphia sole possession of first for the first time since Aug. 26.

Can they stay there?

"We've got 11 games to go, we're going to find out," manager Charlie Manuel said. "We're definitely good enough to win. If we don't, it's our fault. We have a lot of character on this team."

Like many others during this crucial month, the win came courtesy of Ryan Howard, who is continuing his late surge for Most Valuable Player. The big guy strode to the plate with two outs and one on in the eighth inning.

He already had three hits, and was the go-ahead run.

After fouling off a 3-1 pitch, he pounded a 93-mph fastball down the middle of the plate to left, capping a comeback that started an inning earlier.

There was no doubt. Howard is batting .396 this month with eight home runs.

"Ryan's our carrier," Manuel said. "When I was in Cleveland, we had more than one carrier. He's our carrier. He's the guy who puts up the big numbers. He's the guy that knocks in the 130 to 160 RBIs. He's the guy who's big in the moment."

This was a big moment, the latest season-defining moment. It allowed his teammates to ignore a four-run sixth inning that put Atlanta three runs ahead. The Phillies stormed back, as they have plenty of times in recent weeks.

"You just go up there with your game plan, and whatever happens after that, happens," said Howard, who upped his career average in September to .320. "You want to come through when your team needs it and provide a lift. Fortunately, it was a home run."

But .396 in September? Howard batted .213 in August with seven homers, or one fewer than he has this month already.


"You want to come through when your team needs it and provide a lift. Fortunately, it was a home run."
-- Ryan Howard

"When balls are falling in, it's different," Howard said. "There are some things that you could be doing when you're in a slump that you're doing when you're hitting .400. It's all about the ball falling in."

Balls fell in for the Braves too, beginning in the third inning. Jamie Moyer gave back a three-run lead in that frame, then was pelted for three more in the sixth, though two came when Chad Durbin allowed two inherited runners to score.

Moyer said he wasn't affected by pitching on short rest in his previous outing, and said his command was off.

"I felt real good pregame," Moyer said. "The first inning, I was where I needed to be, and it went downhill from there. I think I tried to force too much tonight. For that, I don't have an answer."

Given the Phillies' success in Atlanta this season -- 7-0 and counting -- Moyer's struggles would be erased. Jayson Werth and Carlos Ruiz each homered in support of that cause.

Brad Lidge gave the Phillies a scare in the ninth inning when he walked the bases full, but struck out Gregor Blanco to preserve his 37th save in 37 opportunities.

The righty's save was made possible because of Howard.

"I was hoping he'd come through, and he did," Manuel said. "That was a tremendous hit. He bears down. He wants to be up there. He strives to drive runs in."

The result was first place in the NL East. If the Phillies keep winning, the Mets can fight with the Brewers and Astros over the Wild Card.

"We won a big game, but we have 11 more to play," Manuel said. "We have to keep going. I'll sit down [later] and have a V.O., then think about [Wednesday's] game."

Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.