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05/01/08 11:17 PM ET

On Howard's blast, Phils move into first

Slugger snaps eighth-inning tie, breaks out of skid in big way

PHILADELPHIA -- The process of breaking a frustrating April slump began last weekend in Pittsburgh when Ryan Howard took some extra batting practice. It was during those sessions at PNC Park that the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player finally began to get more comfortable at the plate.

While the results may not have been as evident during the first two games of a six-game homestand, they were to Howard. Instead of hitting towering popups or striking out, he was staying down and putting good swings on the ball.

All that excess work paid off in a big way.

The Phillies first baseman entered Thursday's game against the Padres with a .172 average. But he finished with two huge hits, including the game-winning homer in the bottom of the eighth inning, propelling the Phillies to a 3-2 victory over the Padres before 33,001 at Citizens Bank Park.

"It felt good," Howard said. "The last couple days, I had some good swings and I've been seeing the ball better. To be able to come through in that situation only makes it better for me."

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has been closely monitoring Howard's progress and began to see some positive changes in Pittsburgh.

"In Pittsburgh, when he took BP, he started staying on the ball better and the ball started coming off his bat good," Manuel said. "If you remember Sunday, he got jammed twice. But I wasn't worried because he was staying back on the ball and following it through."

Phillies right-hander Adam Eaton ran into some quick trouble as Adrian Gonzalez ripped his sixth homer of the season over the right-field fence for a 2-0 lead in the first inning.

In the third, the Phillies rallied to tie the score. With two outs, Howard laced a double to left, scoring Shane Victorino. Pat Burrell followed with an RBI double, scoring Howard.

Eaton gave the Phillies another solid outing with six strong innings, allowing only five hits and two earned runs.

"Obviously, going down two runs early is not the best way to start the day," Eaton said. "But we battled back."

Padres lefty Randy Wolf, who pitched for the Phillies from 1999-2006, also was tough, as he gave up six hits and two earned runs while striking out nine over six innings.

Philadelphia's bullpen -- Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero and Tom Gordon -- kept the game tied and Brad Lidge came on in the ninth to secure his seventh save in seven opportunities.

"A typical April for me is a little up and down and normally, I don't come out with good control," said Lidge, who has yet to give up an earned run this season. "I think the control is the biggest difference for me right now."

After Lidge retired the Padres in order, the Phillies were all alone in first place in the National League East. Quite a difference from last season, when they had to play catchup before overtaking the Mets on the final day of the regular season to win the division.

"It's always good to be in first place," Manuel said. "What the heck? It's good. Let's see if we can stay there a while until October."

If Howard strings together a hitting streak and carries the Phillies, they'll be much more dangerous.

Padres manager Bud Black certainly believes it will happen.

"He eventually is going to get hot ... this might be the start of it," Black said. "He hit some balls [Wednesday]. It's just a matter of time before he gets over .200. He's too good a player to be kept down."

The goal now is to come back Friday and do it again.

"When you're not seeing it, everything is tough," Howard said. "You don't feel good at all. Now, I'm starting to see it and I've been able to put some pretty good at-bats together. I want to keep putting them together."

Andy Jasner is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.