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Howard helps Phillies sweep Braves

ATLANTA - June, July and August hold a special place in Charlie Manuel's heart.

ATLANTA - June, July and August hold a special place in Charlie Manuel's heart.

The Phillies' manager calls that time hitting season. The warmer the weather, the hotter the bats, the farther the balls fly.

He thinks that especially holds true for Ryan Howard, who went 3 for 5 with three doubles and four RBIs in today's 6-3 victory over the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. Howard's hitting helped the Phillies sweep the Braves in an important weekend series that allowed them to maintain their 31/2-game lead over the Florida Marlins in the National League East.

The Phillies are 39-26, their best start since they were 39-26 in 1995. They haven't had a better start since 1993, when they went 45-20 on their way to the World Series.

"I think we're playing some great ball," Howard said. "It's good to have what's going on right now going on, but we want to keep it going. I think our best ball is still ahead of us. I don't know why. It's just a feeling."

Howard's best baseball could be ahead of him, too. In his career, he has hit .230 in March/April, .251 in May, .271 in June, .294 in July, .307 in August and .308 in September/October.

"I like playing in hot weather," he said.

Howard is hitting .270 (31 for 115) with nine home runs and 33 RBIs since his average hit a season-low .163 on May 7 in Arizona. He has hit .290 (20 for 69) with five homers and 24 RBIs since May 20.

He is on pace for 37 home runs and 122 RBIs.

Quite a few teams would like that production in the middle of their lineup.

So maybe it is time to ignore Howard's current average of .214. Even if he hits a respectable .265 in his remaining estimated 317 at-bats, he would raise his average to only .243. That's 25 points lower than last season, when he hit .268 with 47 home runs and 136 RBIs. Howard would need to hit .309 the rest of the way to match last season's average.

Howard's doubles in the first and third innings came on change-ups that he dropped down the right-field and left-field lines to knock in two runs. His double in the ninth bounced off the base of the wall in left to score two more runs, giving the Phils a three-run cushion.

"Sometimes you hit them hard and you hit them at somebody," Howard said. "Today, I hit two balls off the end of the bat and got two doubles out of it. That's just how the game works. It's a frustrating game sometimes. Hopefully, I can put a hot streak together."

If Manuel's hunch is right, that hot streak could be just around the corner.

It is hitting season, after all.