Ryan Howard doesn't need to sell any more tickets for the Phillies.
He's already done his part.
But he couldn't help himself after he watched Chase Utley collect a career-high five hits in last night's 9-3 win over the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park. The victory extended the team's winning streak to five games. It improved their record to 9-11.
"It's fun to watch," Howard said. "To do what he did . . . it's good, wholesome family fun."
How hot is Utley right now?
"Red hot," Howard said. "Smokin' hot."
Utley went 5 for 5 with two doubles and three RBIs. Since Charlie Manuel called a team meeting Saturday in Cincinnati, Utley is hitting .550 (11 for 20) with six doubles, two home runs and 10 RBIs.
He has raised his average from .213 to .296.
"It's all about finding holes," Utley said.
Utley would rather have his teeth pulled than talk about his personal accomplishments. He would much rather talk about his teammates - and the fact that his team has suddenly turned itself around after a nightmarish start.
"I think as a team we've been swinging the bats very well," Utley said.
He's right about that. If Utley hadn't had his career night, there were still other notables. Jimmy Rollins, who scored three runs, hit his National League-leading eighth homer. Aaron Rowand extended his hitting streak to a career-best 13 games with a single in the second that led to the team's first run. Howard hit a two-run homer to right field in the third inning to hand the Phillies a 3-0 lead.
The Phillies have scored 39 runs during their winning streak, an average of 7.8 runs per game. They averaged 4.2 runs per game in the previous 15. They also are hitting .352 (19 for 54) with runners in scoring position during the streak. They were hitting an anemic .190 (30 for 158) before.
"I think it was just a matter of time," Utley said. "Hitting is difficult. It's very frustrating. You have to learn to deal with failure, but if you stay positive with the same approach every day, you're better off."
"You're not depending on one person to come through," Howard said. "Everybody is doing their part. Jimmy and Shane [Victorino] are doing their thing at the top of the lineup. We need for them to do well, because they're the catalysts. Chase is swinging a hot bat. I'm hopefully starting to come around a little bit. Pat [Burrell] in swinging well. Everybody. Wes [Helms]. Rowand is hot. We've just got to keep it up because our pitching has been great."
Righthander Jon Lieber (1-0) pitched well in his second start since he rejoined the rotation. In six innings, he allowed five hits, two runs and no walks. He struck out five. Lieber threw just 86 pitches.
He said he wanted to pitch longer.
"Yeah, I did," Lieber said. "It's the manager's decision. I respect that."
Lieber is 1-0 with a 1.54 ERA (two earned runs in 112/3 innings) in his two starts this season. He is 6-3 with a 3.12 ERA in his 13 starts since last season's trade deadline, when his name often surfaced as trade bait.
If he continues to pitch like this, the teams that had no interest in him in the off-season and spring - when the Phillies looked to trade him for bullpen help - could be kicking themselves.
Lieber retired the first nine batters he faced when Felipe Lopez singled to left-center to lead off the fourth inning. Lieber surrendered two runs in the inning to cut the Phillies' lead to 3-2, but he retired seven of the final eight batters he faced.
The Phillies will try to sweep the Nationals this afternoon. Lefthander Cole Hamels, who started this streak Saturday when he struck out 15 Reds in his first complete game, will be on the mound. If he comes close to how he pitched Saturday and the offense continues to produce like it has, the Phils should like their chances.
Especially if Howard is starting to come around. He has homered twice in the last four games.
"I'm getting there," Howard said. "The satisfaction is putting good ABs back to back and having some good results."
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