LATE LAST AUGUST the Houston Astros swept four straight games from the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, scripting a foreboding recipe on how to defeat a team that would finish with the most victories of any in the major leagues. The Astros bunted and ran the bases as aggressively as one might expect a team hopelessly out of a pennant race might.

Mostly though, they didn't throw many strikes.

They didn't have to. The Phillies were an impatient bunch, an eager bunch, and an extremely aggressive bunch. They recorded 10 hits in the first game and scored two runs, had 10 hits in the second game and scored two runs, had seven hits in the third game and scored two runs and had seven hits and one run in losing the final game of the series, 5-1.

"We'd be in a shutdown mode at times," Phillies hitting coach Greg Gross said.

In fact, 34 times in the regular season last year, the Phillies were held to one run or less. In the NLCS game in which they were eliminated by the Giants, the Phillies were 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position and left 11 men on base.

"So we decided going into spring training that every day while we were there, there was going to be a situation round of BP," Gross said. "Most of the time it was guy on third, one out. Guy on second, nobody out. Things like that."

The Astros left town yesterday with an 0-fer, their strategy this time spraying backwards on them into big, damaging innings, into a three-game Phillies sweep. The Phillies worked counts and stole bases and pushed guys forward, and delivered two-out singles, too. After six innings of swinging at anything Brett Myers threw near them on Opening Day, the Phillies remembered the lessons of spring and worked counts, took their walks, tried to just get a good lick on the ball. They scored 21 runs over the weekend, ending it with yesterday's declarative, 7-3 victory that featured their first two home runs of the season.

Ryan Howard and Ben Francisco went long for a four-run first inning. Howard's came after Placido Polanco worked a walk and Jimmy Rollins drove a single between first and second base. Rollins reached base four times yesterday, but it was interesting, and maybe instructive, to hear manager Charlie Manuel cite his walks in his postgame summary.

As interesting as it was to hear Rollins laud the spring-training exercise after triggering the ninth-inning rally on Opening Day.

"Jimmy was really good about it," Gross said. "You get a guy with that kind of experience, guys like him and Chase [Utley]. Even though it's only 50 miles an hour, only BP, they kind of get on each other. Say stuff like, 'That's not going to score him.' It carries over.

"Nobody said anything negative like, 'Why are we doing this?' I think they understand. You know, they all know what they're supposed to do, or try to do. But I think the approach of trying to do something in certain situations is going to get you through those times when they're not swinging as collective as they can."

Rollins has reached base eight times in 14 plate appearances this season, and has yet to record an extra-base hit. He's hitting .500 after three games, and after three games Howard has a .538 average with a home run, double and six runs batted in. And Ben Francisco, Jayson Werth's heir in both the field and in the batting order, is hitting .462, and received his first standing ovation as Phillie yesterday when he crashed hard into the fence to catch a ball in the fourth inning.

All look so comfortable, so relaxed, that preseason talk of advancing age and diminishing skills seems, right now anyway, absurd. Manuel wouldn't talk about his slugger's start, lest he "black-cloud him." Howard repeatedly spoke of keeping it simple, of "having a good AB," not trying to do too much. But he did say, "It definitely helps when guys are getting on in front of you," and Manuel repeated his spring-long mantra that the hitters in front of your big bopper are more important than those behind him.

Rollins, Polanco and Utley all struggled with injuries and slumps last year. Shane Victorino's average dropped more than 30 points from his average of the previous two seasons.

"People talking about us getting old or skills declining," Howard said. "Sometimes people have off years. Sometimes people get hurt. Jimmy's going to open a lot of people's eyes. And if he just has a normal year we'll be fine."

No one's quite sure what normal would be for Jimmy now that he's hitting just ahead of Howard. But the approach so far is promising, not to mention rewarding. The little things cost the Phillies a third straight trip to the World Series last year. Now, with a few weapons missing and perhaps a more conscientious approach, they may propel a return.

"It's something that's contagious," Gross said. "You can steal games with it, especially against good pitching. And in our division there's a lot of good pitching."

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