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Howard hits 58th homer, Phillies top Marlins

Sep 23, 2006 - 2:06 AM PHILADELPHIA (Ticker) -- Ryan Howard is doing his best to get the Philadelphia Phillies to the postseason for the first time in 13 years.

Howard belted his major league-leading 58th homer and rookie Cole Hamels struck out 10 in 6 2/3 innings as the Phillies posted a 5-2 victory over the Florida Marlins.

Behind Howard and Hamels, the Phillies (80-73) won for the fifth time in six games to keep pace with the Los Angeles Dodgers (81-73), who beat Arizona on Friday to keep their one-half game lead in the National League wild card race.

"Our players are talking winning baseball and they're definitely excited about everything," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "The crowd was into it. There was a lot of noise. It was a tremendous atmosphere. Our players expect us to win."

Philadelphia has not made the playoffs since losing to Toronto in the 1993 World Series.

"We handle our business," Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "If we do what we have to, good things will happen."

A year after winning Rookie of the Year honors, Howard is making a strong case to capture the Most Valuable Player award. The lefthanded-hitting slugger, who leads the majors with 143 RBI, crushed a 3-1 pitch from Ricky Nolasco (11-10) over the left field wall for a three-run homer in the third inning, giving the Phillies a 4-0 lead.

Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, who went 3-for-4, had singled ahead of Howard in the third.

"Fortunately, (Nolasco) left a fastball middle away and I was able to take it that way," Howard said. "I hear (the MVP chants) and it's a good feeling, but then again, you've got to tune it out a little bit and get focused on the task at hand."

"He hit a bullet, man," Manuel said. "He hit a line drive right into the seats. (Nolasco) was trying to pitch around him and it looked like he got the outer part of the plate."

Howard's 58 homers tied him with Jimmie Foxx, who had 58 with the Philadelphia A's in 1932, for most home runs in a season by a Philadelphia player.

"It's a great honor to be able to be mentioned in the same breath and to be able to accomplish something like that, but the focus is on the postseason," Howard said.

Howard twas walked intentionally in his final two at-bats. He was put on base with a runner on first and two outs in the sixth, but the strategy backfired when Jeff Conine followed with a run-scoring single to give the Phillies a 5-1 lead.

"Am I surprised (by the strategy)? No," Howard said. "My mindset is the same. If I don't get pitches to hit, then I don't get pitches to hit. You've always got to be ready to hit."

In the eighth, Howard was walked with none on and two outs and the strategy almost failed again when Conine lined a double, but Howard was thrown out at the plate.

"I had nothing (left) in the tank," Howard said. "I thought maybe I could get around (the catcher), but I was called out."

Hamels (9-8), who has the makeup of a future ace, worked around an extra-base hit in each of the first three innings. The 22-year-old lefthander, who improved to 7-3 in his last 11 starts, gave up one run and six hits with three walks before departing to a standing ovation. He threw 76 of 115 pitches for strikes.

"When Howard can go out there and give you some good run support, I know I only need one or two runs and I'll be able to succeed," Hamels said. "There was no doubt that I was going to go out there and shut them down."

Hamels also notched his fourth double-digit strikeout game of the season.

"Right now, our starting pitching is very good," Manuel said. "This is a good time of the season for it to kick in to be good. That's what it's gonna take to get in the playoffs and to actually go somewhere in the playoffs."

Geoff Geary and Matt Smith bridged the gap to Tom Gordon, who worked around a two-out single in the ninth for his 33rd save.

Desperately trying to stay in the wild card race, the Marlins (76-78) fell five games behind the Dodgers with eight games left. Florida does play Philadelphia five more times.

"This team has never given up," Marlins manager Joe Girardi said. "Nobody expected us to be in this situation with eight games to go and our guys have done it."

Nolasco surrendered four runs and seven hits in 3 2/3 innings. He walked three and struck out six.

Miguel Cabrera had two hits and an RBI for the Marlins, who lost for the fifth time in seven games.

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