When Ryan Howard made the final out of the Philadelphia Phillies' 2011 season in Game 5 of their NL Division Series, few may have realized how much more disappointment would follow in subsequent months.
The last-place Phillies hope his return can provide a spark.Howard seems likely to play for the first time this season Friday night in the opener of a three-game set with the visiting Atlanta Braves.As St. Louis celebrated a 1-0 victory on the field behind him Oct. 8, Howard was being helped to the locker room after tearing his left Achilles' tendon while grounding out to end the series.His injury has kept him out of the first 84 games as Philadelphia (37-47) -- also dealing with injuries to Chase Utley and Roy Halladay -- sits at the bottom of the NL East.After batting .471 with a homer, two doubles and nine RBIs in six minor league rehab games, it appears Howard is ready to go."That's very exciting," said Philadelphia outfielder Hunter Pence, batting .390 during a 10-game hitting streak. "That's awesome. I look forward to seeing him."The Phillies could sorely use a boost from Howard right now. They've dropped seven of eight after closer Jonathan Papelbon allowed two runs in the bottom of the ninth of a 6-5 loss to the New York Mets on Thursday.Jimmy Rollins went 3 for 3 with a triple, a double, two walks and two RBIs, all in a losing effort."You try to stay even keel," manager Charlie Manuel said. "You come out the next day and chip away."Howard is batting .327 with six homers in 52 career at-bats off Braves starter Tim Hudson, who will take the mound Friday looking to bounce back from a tough outing.Hudson (6-4, 3.87 ERA) went 3-1 with a 1.93 ERA in June, but his July got off to a rough start Sunday when he allowed six runs in six innings of an 8-4 loss to Washington.The right-hander is 1/3 with a 4.30 ERA in six career starts at Citizens Bank Park, but he's 3-1 with a 3.60 ERA in his last six outings overall against the Phillies.Atlanta (43-39) had lost five of seven before beating the Cubs 7-3 on Thursday. Jason Heyward and Brian McCann each hit a two-run homer in the first inning, and Freddie Freeman and Juan Francisco added solo shots.Martin Prado went 2 for 4 to extend his hitting streak to 11, and he's batting .412 over his last 14 games. Prado is 7 for 12 in his career against slumping Phillies starter Kyle Kendrick.Kendrick (2-8, 5.35) fell to 0-4 with a 7.67 ERA over his last five starts after giving up five runs in seven innings of a 5-4 loss to Pittsburgh on June 28.The right-hander, though, has been solid against the Braves, going 6-1 with a 2.53 ERA in 10 career starts and five relief appearances.Philadelphia took two of three at Atlanta from May 1-3, and has won nine of the last 10 matchups in this divisional rivalry."The Phillies are still the Phillies," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez told his team's official website. "I don't care if they're 2-110. You go into that ballpark and they sell out, and it's a great atmosphere."