AS THE MUSIC played and the big bell in the outfield tolled and the Phillies players exchanged congratulations all around, the near-sellout crowd was jubilant.

And why not? The Phillies had just beaten the Blue Jays, 5-3, to win another series. They completed a 7-3 homestand. They were back at .500. It was a warm, sunny afternoon. There was no reason, absolutely none, not to feel pretty doggone good about the state of affairs down at One Citizens Bank Way.

There isn't, at least, until a closer look is taken at the underpinnings of this recent success.

Now, nobody is happier about the Phillies' recent winning ways than Charlie Manuel.

At the same time, nobody is more acutely aware that surface appearances can sometimes be deceiving.

The Phillies have been winning despite batting .233 as a team in the last eight games. That not-so-coincidentally coincides with the number of games first baseman Ryan Howard has been on the disabled list.

"We've got to get him back," Manuel said simply after yesterday's game.

That takes nothing away from the resourcefulness the team has demonstrated. It takes nothing away from how well Greg Dobbs and Wes Helms have played in Howard's place or how consistently the starting pitchers have worked into the late innings or how dominant Brett Myers has been as the closer.

The reality, though, is that the Phillies won yesterday despite going 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position. They were helped by the fact that the Blue Jays misplayed a couple of bunts, made a couple of baserunning mistakes.

On Friday, they had only three hits. They all came in the fifth inning, however, along with four walks and a wild pitch.

Against the Brewers, they came back twice to beat dominant Brewers reliever Derrick Turnbow, once on a walkoff homer by catcher Carlos Ruiz with two outs and nobody on base in the bottom of the ninth.

All of these are telltale signs of a team with character, a team that gets contributions from the entire roster, a team that finds a way to win, a team that never gives up.

It's also a difficult way to make a living over the course of an entire season.

"We've played real good defense," Manuel said. "We've had some big comebacks. And our fans have been great. At the same time, we need the big guy back."

Barring a setback, that should happen soon. Howard, who has been bothered by a left quadriceps strain, is scheduled for a rehab assignment at Class A Lakewood Wednesday and Thursday. After that, he should be ready to rejoin the team Friday in Atlanta.

And even though he's batting just .204, that should make a big difference. He still has six homers and 23 RBI in 98 at-bats. He still has walked 29 times, 11 of them intentionally. Teams still have to approach him for what he is: the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player.

Dobbs had a single, a double and drove in a run yesterday. In his last 11 games, he's hitting .406 with two homers and eight runs scored. He's been having a blast and making the most of his opportunity.

"When one of the big dogs goes down, you just have to fill in for him," he said. "I know how big a void it is. And when he's ready to come back, I'll deal with it the way I dealt with it in spring training.

"I'm not going to be disappointed. No one is going to reasonably say I should be playing instead of him. My approach will be that I did the job I'm being paid to do, which is to fill in and do the best I can to produce. That's my role.

"And when he comes back, I'll be 100 percent excited and glad to see him because I know we need him."

Charlie Manuel couldn't have said it any better. *