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Sunday, October 26, 2008
Updated: October 27, 9:37 AM ET
Philly's big man has his groove back

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com

OK, sure, Joe Blanton and his home run are the fun story, the one that gets teammates laughing.

"Not to say that pitchers aren't athletes, but we're not supposed to do things like that," reliever Scott Eyre said. "It didn't look like he even knew what to do at first."

But when Philadelphia fans finish joking about Joe the Slugger they will turn to a far more important hitter in the Phillies' lineup and his far more significant home runs Sunday night.

Ryan Howard is back with the powerful swing that changes games in an instant and makes opposing pitchers wet their pants. And unlike Blanton, he most definitely has that home run trot thing down.

Howard broke the game open with a three-run homer to left field in the bottom of the fourth, completed the 10-2 rout with a two-run homer in the eighth and served notice to everyone in Tampa Bay that the Big Man has his groove back.

"Everybody knows that when Ryan gets hot, he can carry the team all by himself," Eyre said. "And if everybody else is hitting, that's not good for the other team."

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It's especially important for Philadelphia because, well, Blanton probably won't get another at-bat this series.

Howard went nearly a month without homering, which was due in part to the Phillies having an entire week off after the NLCS and playing only 13 games total during that stretch. But still. Compared to how Ryan normally hits, that is a prolonged drought.

Held hitless in the first game of the series, Howard doubled and singled in Game 2 but grounded out to end the 4-2 loss when he represented the tying run. He struck out twice and grounded out again in Game 3 but also hit a solo homer in the sixth inning. He topped that Sunday.

"You have your ups and downs, your good days and bad days," Howard said of his October slump. "It's just about staying on the same plane. You're going to go through those runs. And unfortunately for me it started out early in the playoffs, but I think everybody right now would rather have me hot right now."

Well, not exactly everybody.

Ryan Howard
Ryan Howard capped off his night with a two-run blast in the eighth inning, driving in five of the Phillies' 10 runs.
"It's just like last series where everyone was talking about David Ortiz being off his game. And I kept saying, I don't trust him," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I have not been around Ryan as often, but you know how good he is. And guys like that, those big power guys, when they hit them, it normally comes in bunches. They get the feel working and all of a sudden every ball looks big and it's in the right spot."

Philadelphia held a slim 2-1 lead in the fourth inning and was continuing to struggle with men in scoring position when Howard came to bat against Tampa Bay right-handed starter Andy Sonnanstine with one out and two runners on base. With lefty Trever Miller warming up in the bullpen as quickly as possible, Howard sent a 2-1 pitch over the left-field fence to give Philadelphia a four-run lead. The game was effectively over at that point, and the Rays never mounted a serious threat the rest of the way.

Matt Stairs said that when Howard gets hot it affects the entire lineup because teams wind up pitching so carefully to the other batters around him that you suddenly find lots of runners on base. "We drive off when he gets hot," Stairs said.

"He's patient and he's been staying on the ball," manager Charlie Manuel said. "If you ask him, he'll probably say he's relaxed and seeing the ball better. The reason he is, he's slowed down and started concentrating on following the ball. And probably looking for pitches to hit instead of guessing. And he's looking good. He's got his timing and his weight shift is good, his balance is good."

But enough about Howard. We see his home runs all the time. What about that Blanton home run, anyway?

"I jumped up too fast," Howard said of his reaction to the pitcher's shot. "I almost passed out."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.