ATLANTA - Sprinkled throughout the disappointment of another lost summer night were bits and pieces of justification for the optimism the Phillies have espoused over these last couple of weeks. They did not overshadow another paltry offensive showing, nor did they erase the frustration at the handling of an hourlong rain delay that ended Cole Hamels' night after just 24 pitches. But they were there, inserted like Easter eggs into an otherwise dismal, 7-3 loss to the red-hot Braves.

Ryan Howard hit his ninth home run of the season, ending a personal drought of nine games and a teamwide stretch of seven that ranked as the longest in more than a decade.

Jayson Werth started his night with a walk and ended it with a double to right-center, snapping an 0-for-21 skid.

Even Chase Utley came centimeters away from driving a ball during an eight-pitch at-bat in the third inning that ended with a strikeout and the stranding of runners on second and third.

"We swung better," Charlie Manuel said afterwards, one of the few times during his team's 2-week offensive slump that he has uttered those words.

Of course, the statement was followed by a "but" because his focal point was still the fact that the Phillies lost for the third straight time, and for the eighth time in 10 games, and the 10th time in their last 14.

"We kind of played sloppy, too," he continued.

And he was correct.

Normally sure-handed Juan Castro, filling in for the injured Placido Polanco at third, muffed a potential doubleplay ball in the third that would have ended an inning in which the Braves proceeded to score two runs.

Werth misplayed a ball in rightfield that resulted in a two-base error and led to a sacrifice fly.

Carlos Ruiz appeared to get a late jump on a groundball in the seventh inning, which led to Martin Prado throwing him out at home after recording a forceout at second.

The collateral damage of a will-crushing offensive slump is starting to mount - sloppy baserunning, 14 errors in their last 14 games, a general sense of malaise in the clubhouse.

Then again, maybe it all would have been different had Hamels remained in the game. He never had a chance to settle down after allowing a three-run homer to Troy Glaus with one out in the first inning. The driving rain that began shortly after the first pitch convinced the umpiring crew to call for the tarp, prompting an angry response from Manuel in the visitors' dugout. When the game resumed after a delay of 1:04 - even though the rain stopped shortly after the tarp was pulled - Hamels was replaced on the mound by righthander Chad Durbin, and the Braves rolled on to their seventh straight win.

"They told me before the game there might be a light shower coming through," Manuel said. "When it was raining, they said they didn't want to stop the game because they thought it was going to blow out. Once they stopped it, they said . . . we had rain all around us. And we lost Hamels. It wasn't very good."

Braves righthander Tim Hudson returned to the mound after the delay and held the Phillies to two runs on five hits in six innings. But Manuel said he had no thoughts of sending Hamels back out.

"Once he passed 30, 40 minutes, he was done," Manuel said.

Does Hamels think he could have gone back out?

"We'll never know," said Hamels, who added that he understood the decision and didn't sound upset about not going back out. "I felt good."

The offensive slump was momentarily broken up in the sixth inning, when Howard connected on a 2-2 pitch from Hudson, sending it sailing over the rightfield fence for a two-run homer that snapped the Phillies' 68-inning HR drought.

It was their first home run since Ross Gload hit a solo shot off Ramon Ramirez in the ninth inning of an 8-3 loss to the Red Sox on May 23, a seven-game streak that was the team's longest since July 1999.

Howard, meanwhile, hadn't hit a home run since he took John Lackey deep in the fourth inning of a 5-1 win over the Red Sox on May 21. He went nine games and 34 at-bats in between his eighth and ninth home runs of the season.

Howard came to the plate in the ninth inning with the bases loaded, representing the tying run, but the Braves called on closer Billy Wagner, who got him to ground out to end the game.

"Right now I guess, yeah, you try to take what you can," Howard said. "We're still not hitting with runners in scoring position, but you try to take what you can. It's baseball. It's something you can't explain. It happens. You just try to ride it out."

In the meantime, the Phillies are 28-23 and 1 1/2 games out of first place.