But this has been a different year for Howard, who missed most of the first half of the season recovering from left Achilles tendon surgery. And for the Phillies, who have won the last five National League East titles, but haven't had a winning record since the first week in June.
It seemed a little bit like old times on Sunday, though. The Phillies twice came back to tie the score, then won it in the bottom of the ninth, 5-4, when Howard lined a single to right off Arizona reliever Josh Collmenter to score Juan Pierre and bring the rest of the team spilling out of the dugout to celebrate.
That, along with the Marlins loss at Washington, lifted the Phillies out of last place for the first time since June 27.
The Phillies plan to contend again next season, and if Howard can regain the All-Star form he showed before his injury, that would obviously be a big step in the right direction. But Howard has been struggling mightily. When he stepped to the plate in the ninth on Sunday, he'd struck out 25 times in his last 13 games.
"He needs to be balanced and quick with his bat," manager Charlie Manuel explained. "When he's not balanced, his weight kind of shifts. If your weight leans forward just a little bit, you become an arm-and-hand hitter. And at times he doesn't use the back side. And your back side is what gives you quick hands and a quick barrel. That's what gives you bat speed. If you just get out on your front side a little bit, you might as well be way out there."
So it wasn't surprising that Arizona manager Kirk Gibson opted to pitch to Howard with the game on the line. Pierre, batting for starting pitcher Cliff Lee, led off the ninth with a single up the middle and was bunted to second by Nate Schierholtz. Pinch-hitter Laynce Nix hit an in-between fly ball in front of right-fielder Justin Upton. Pierre started for third, retreated, then took off again when Upton was unable to make the shoestring catch, but had to stop at third.
Utley, who already had a single and a homer in the game, was walked intentionally. Gibson pulled the infield up but, interestingly, left the outfield back, even though Pierre could have also scored on a sacrifice fly. As it turned out, Howard's hit dropped in front of Upton. If he'd been playing up and caught it, there was no guarantee Pierre would have been able to score.
Manuel said he gave Howard some advice before he left the dugout. "I told him, 'The pitcher's the one who's in trouble. Make sure you see the ball and slow down," the manager said. "He was concentrating on that. He didn't get in a hurry. He was seeing the ball. He took some pitches that looked like they were close. The guy was trying to get him to chase and he was pretty patient, and all of a sudden the guy had to come to him."
Because Howard hasn't been keeping his weight back, a logical assumption would be that he's still feeling the aftereffects of the ruptured Achilles last October and the infection that set in during Spring Training. It would be logical, but Howard said it would also be wrong.
"Not at all," Howard said, when asked if he was favoring his back leg. "It's just been a matter of being in-between. Timing. It's a timing issue right now. That's it. Start too late, start too early. I've got to find the happy place."
The Phillies are in a happier place after winning back-to-back series against the Nationals and Diamondbacks since the Trade Deadline. They took two of three from Arizona, even after making a waiver deal that sent Joe Blanton to the Dodgers just hours before he was scheduled to start on Friday night.
They're also catching some breaks. They tied the score in the bottom of the eighth with the help of three singles that didn't leave the infield, plus two wild pitches and an error.
"I think we're relaxed and concentrating on playing good baseball," Manuel said. "I look at it and we may not be as strong as we were. But at the same time, we've been doing some good things in the game. Let's just see how many games we can win and see if we can climb back in something."