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04/25/07 10:00 PM ET
Howard, Utley overwhelm Nationals
Phillies pound out 12 hits, six for extra bases
By Ken Mandel / MLB.com
PHILADELPHIA -- For evidence of Chase Utley's swing returning to form, one should not look at Monday's gigantic home run that bounced off the top of the batter's eye. Instead, look to the seven doubles that have been peppered to all fields over the past six games, two of which came during Wednesday's 9-3 win over the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park. "It's little extreme," Utley said, of his recent doubles surge. "Doubles usually mean you're hitting the ball hard. That's the ultimate goal." "He's warming up," manager Charlie Manuel said. "He's getting there. He's using the whole field." The ultimate goal, of course, is to win baseball games, and the Phillies have done so with regularity in the past week, notching five straight wins and averaging eight runs a game. Much of that offense had come from Aaron Rowand, Pat Burrell and Wes Helms. The All-Star duo of Utley and Ryan Howard did the deed on Wednesday. Utley recorded a career-high five hits, and Howard added a two-run homer in support of Jon Lieber. "His confidence is back," said Jimmy Rollins, who homered and scored three runs. "Chase was going through where he takes a good swing, and he's up, and takes a bad swing and he's down. But he's found something that has clicked again, and when you do that, you're able to hold onto it. Ryan is searching, Chase has found it, and hopefully, everybody else will keep doing what we're doing until those two really get hot." While Utley has found his stroke during an 11-for-20 stretch in the past four games, Howard limped into the game with a .207 average and 21 strikeouts in 58 at-bats, and has looked less than comfortable at the plate. Utley's second hit, and first double, of the evening came in the third, and it set up Howard's two-run homer, giving the Phillies a 3-0 lead. His next two hits delivered three runs, including a single past the shortstop that put the game well in Philadelphia's hands. Jon Lieber justified the decision to move him back to the starting rotation with a second strong outing. The veteran retired the first nine hitters -- five by strikeout -- and mostly breezed through six innings. He allowed two runs in the fourth, when four of the five hits he allowed were recorded. Despite being sent to the bullpen to start the season, his immediate success didn't surprise Manuel. "He's been a good starter the last two years here. He got off to a rough start last year, but was pretty good the last two months," he said. As for Howard, the first baseman hopes his second home run in four games is the start of something. This one went to right field, though, and the true sign of Howard's prowess is when he's sending balls hard to left-center field. "I'm hopefully starting to come around," Howard said. "The satisfaction is when you put at-bats back-to-back and having good results." Howard entered the game in a 3-for-30, eight-strikeout skid, and was coming off a .221 average in Spring Training. Manuel maintains that Howard is pressing to duplicate 58-homer, 149-RBI MVP season. "Probably every place he goes, somebody says, 'How many home runs you going to hit?'" Manuel said. "Whether you realize it or not, that has an effect. He'll get it going. This guy can hit. He's going to hit. I said so. Take it to the bank. I'll be responsible. He's going to hit. Really, he's going to hit." Wednesday night, he did. Utley seems to have already regained his stroke, as he joins an offense which is making life easier for the starting rotation by producing with runners in scoring position. "It was just a matter of time," Utley said. "It's frustrating, but you need to stay positive."
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.