The signal flares went up over the hill a long time ago, but the reinforcements never arrived. The saviors who were going to get here by claim, trade and automobile to help push the Phillies past the New York Mets or salvage a wild-card bid just didn't show up.

If the Phillies get into the playoffs, it won't be because of a surprise acquisition by the front office, but because of production from very familiar places. That might not happen, of course. This team has gone into profound slumps for extended periods.

But for right now, for this little sliver of September in any case, Ryan Howard is trying to lift the Phillies over the wall all by himself.

Howard had another home run last night, a two-run blast into the shrubbery beyond center field in the first inning. He would have had a second homer if it weren't for Aaron Rowand. Howard hit a drive in the fourth inning, also to center field, but the ball thudded into the very top of the thick padding on the fence and dropped back onto the field for a double.

Way back before Rowand rearranged his face on that fence, there wouldn't have been enough padding to stop it. Now, the fence looks like a Gymboree rumpus room, and it might have cost Howard his 44th home run of the season.

No matter, at least from the team perspective. Howard scored later in the inning, and the Phillies cobbled together enough offense to get past the fading Milwaukee Brewers, 6-3. The Phils are three games behind the Mets again (although down four in the loss column) and tied with Houston, three games behind the Brewers for the National League wild-card berth.

There is daylight ahead, not a lot, and it is difficult to tell whether the sun is rising or setting, but there is still enough light by which to read the standings. If the Phils can keep pushing past the Brewers, if the Mets can stumble against Atlanta . . .

And more than anything else, if the offense can find the gear that allows the team to overcome occasionally spotty pitching, then perhaps there is a lot more left to this season.

Howard hitting tracers deep into the night is a fine place to start. If he stays hot, it will lift Chase Utley batting ahead of him and help the cause of Pat Burrell hitting behind him. It also will be fun to watch, which is the definition of what happens when Howard really gets into one, as he did a couple of times last night.

"When he gets going, it picks you up, because he hits the ball out of the yard. He gets [everyone] going," manager Charlie Manuel said. "When I was in Cleveland, I never realized how Albert Belle affected the whole lineup until he was gone. . . . Howard has that kind of presence."

After batting .213 in August, Howard is hitting .368 in September. He had seven home runs and 19 RBIs in August, and already has six homers and 15 RBIs in September. His .243 average for the season, including 189 strikeouts, is a disappointment, no question. But it's hard to argue with a major league-leading 43 home runs and 129 RBIs.

It is also hard to argue with the psychic lift Howard provides when he's banging the ball around. The games get easier, the dugout gets looser, and good things start to happen. The Phillies even squeezed home a run last night to give closer Brad Lidge the three-run cushion entering the ninth. That's something they do, well, never.

"My job is to try to produce runs," Howard said. "I have to do whatever I can to try to get the team going, provide a spark. Whatever, I try to do it."

The Phils had several sparks last night, including a solid start for 45-year-old Jamie Moyer, who was working with just three days' rest. No spark was brighter than the one provided by Howard, though. Giving the team a 2-0 lead before the fans had even settled into their seats put the flailing Brewers on their heels from the start.

"It's September, and we've got to look at every game as a fight," Howard said. "Every day, I just try to do my part."

There aren't fresh arms and hot bats coming into the locker room from somewhere else. All the late help the organization could provide - such as it is - already has arrived. This is the team that will either get to the postseason again or miss out in excruciating fashion. Someone has to lead them, and so far this month - a month that always has been good to him - it has been Ryan Howard.

"I was able to get the bat head on the ball," Howard said of his two deep drives last night, "and the ball just kind of carried."

Just like that, and the team was carried along, too.