ST. LOUIS - Can one man make the difference?

The Phillies, who open a three-game series tonight against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, are counting on it.

They have an alarming 5.88 earned run average this month, and it's evident they need to continue to pound the ball to have a chance to pass the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves in the National League East.

That means they need Ryan Howard more than ever.

"He's in a good position to really put up some huge numbers again," manager Charlie Manuel said.

Howard hit .462 (6 for 13) with two doubles, two home runs and six RBIs against Cleveland this week. The Indians started three lefthanders in that series, which is noteworthy because Howard has struggled against them.

But the first baseman has been hitting the ball much better since he returned from the disabled list May 25 in Atlanta. He hit .204 with six homers and 23 RBIs in 29 games before the Phillies placed him on the disabled list May 10 with a strained left quadriceps. He has hit .293 with 10 home runs and 26 RBIs in the 25 games since his return. And despite his slow start and time spent on the DL, he is on pace to finish the season with 42 home runs and 130 RBIs.

"There's no doubt he's a presence," centerfielder Aaron Rowand said. "Every team has that guy. And he's our guy."

Is there an actual Howard Effect? Manuel has said countless times that even when Howard is struggling at the plate, he makes the offense run.

"He puts fear in the opposition, and it gives our team a lift," Manuel said. "We've got a guy in the lineup who every time he steps up to the plate can hit the ball out of the yard. And when he's hitting, hitting breeds confidence. Guys feed off that."

The numbers support that. The Phillies were hitting .268 with a .358 on-base percentage and a .425 slugging percentage before Howard went on the DL. They averaged 5.0 runs per game. They hit .253 with a .326 on-base and .419 slugging percentage without him. They averaged 5.1 runs.

But now that he is healthy, the team is hitting .269 with a .343 on-base and .465 slugging percentage. They are averaging 5.3 runs per game.

"It'd be like taking Big Papi [David Ortiz] out of the Red Sox lineup," hitting coach Milt Thompson said. "It changes everything when they're out. We had to try to do something just to move Jimmy [Rollins] to third in the lineup from the leadoff spot. His numbers went down batting third. It makes the lineup unbalanced."

"The guys hitting in front of him are going to be pitched a little bit differently when he's in there," Rowand said. "They're going to try to come after them a little more than they would if he wasn't, because you know they don't want to get behind and put a couple of runners on when he's coming up."

There has been a bump in production from the three batters in front of Howard.

Rollins hit .173 with a .207 on-base and a .192 slugging percentage with Howard on the DL. He has hit .296 with a .345 on-base and a .574 slugging since. Shane Victorino hit .227 with a .320 on-base and a .295 slugging with Howard on the DL. He has hit .288 with a .333 on-base and a .481 slugging since.

Chase Utley hit .300 with a .375 on-base and a .560 slugging percentage with Howard on the DL. He has hit .366 with a .434 on-base and a .581 slugging since.

"If teams want to come in and try to focus on me by trying to get me out and not letting me beat them, that's fine," Howard said. "Because if they're going to take their focus off somebody like Aaron, that's big. Guys like him will step up in those situations."

That's what they need, because their pitching hasn't been getting it done.

Vuke tribute. The Phillies said yesterday that John Vukovich, who died in March, will be inducted into the Phillies Wall of Fame at Citizens Bank Park on Aug. 10. Vukovich spent 30 of 41 seasons in professional baseball with the Phillies.

Extra bases. Double-A Reading pitcher Carlos Carrasco and single-A Lakewood second baseman Adrian Cardenas will play in the All-Star Futures Game on July 8 in San Francisco.