ATLANTA - The thick blanket of heat that settles over this Southern metropolis in the summer is a popular topic of conversation with almost anyone who is subject to it. But to Ryan Howard, 95-degree temperatures and near-capacity humidity are welcome relief from the cool Northern temperatures that linger throughout the first couple months of the season.

"In hot weather, everything feels looser," Howard said. "Your body feels looser."

That rationale makes sense when you look at the way Howard's hitting has risen along with the temperature. It has been a slow climb, for sure. He entered yesterday with just six hits in his last 32 at-bats, numbers that called to mind his immense struggles in the first 2 months of the season. But he snapped out of it with a 3-for-5 performance and had three doubles in a game for the first time in his career.

Since his batting average reached a season low of .163 on May 7, Howard has hit .270 with nine home runs and 33 RBI. Now, it sits at a season high of .214.

"There are still those times where you hit them hard and you hit them right at somebody," Howard said. "Today, I hit two balls off the end of the bat and got doubles off them. That's just how the game works. It's a frustrating game sometimes."

But both the player and the manager expect that frustration to dissipate as the summer wears on.

"Like I said before, we get from the end of May, through June, July, August, I call that hitting season," Charlie Manuel said. "That's when it gets hot. We get places like here, really. It gets hot, so does Florida, and Texas. It gets real hot. That's good hitting weather."

Howard isn't complaining.

"I'm from St. Louis," he said. "I'm used to this weather."

Romero OK

Lefthander J.C. Romero tweaked his groin in the seventh inning of Saturday's 6-2 win over the Braves, but recovered in time to record two outs, including one in which he sprinted from the mound to cover first. Nevertheless, Charlie Manuel decided to keep him out of yesterday's game as a precaution.

"He would have pitched if we would have asked him to," Manuel said. "But we didn't want to use him today."

Manuel said he expects Romero to be available tomorrow against the Marlins if necessary.

Dobbs in

Greg Dobbs hadn't started a game at third base since May 17, but that changed yesterday as the utility man took Pedro Feliz' spot in the lineup.

Feliz hadn't had a day off in 20 games and entered yesterday mired in a 1-for-19 funk, so Manuel started the lefthand-hitting Dobbs against Braves righthander Jorge Campillo.

Dobbs has been effective as a pinch-hitter, leading the league with 11 RBI and a .438 average (minimum 20 at-bats), but has also played well as a starter. He went 1-for-2 yesterday with a single and a walk, raising his average as a starter to .300 (12-for-40).

Feliz, meanwhile, replaced Dobbs in the top of the eighth inning and struck out. Since raising his average to a season-high .271 with a 4-for-6 performance in a 20-5 win over Colorado on May 26, he is 5-for-41 and hitting .248 on the season.

Mr. Jones

Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, who went 3-for-6 in the first two games of the series to raise his average to .420, missed yesterday's game with a small tear in his right quadriceps. The injury isn't expected to keep him out for an extended period, a good thing for his teammates: The Braves are 0-6 in games he does not start. The Phillies certainly didn't mind. Jones is 6-for-12 with two triples and a homer in his career against Adam Eaton, who started yesterday's game. *