Braves unable to contain Howard
Phillies slugger takes Vazquez deep twice in defeat
ATLANTA -- After doing a whole lot of nothing during his previous encounters against the Braves this year, Ryan Howard came to Atlanta this past weekend and did everything he could to prove why he and his Phillies teammates are more than capable of powering themselves to a third consecutive National League East crown.
Howard burst Atlanta's bubble on Friday night and then further reversed a maddening season-long trend by capping his productive weekend with a two-homer, four-RBI performance that led to the Braves' 4-1 loss to the Phillies at Turner Field on Sunday night.
"The big guy is the guy who hurt us tonight," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "We made a couple of mistakes, and he hit them. That's what he is. He can change a game in a heartbeat."
Howard opened his power display with a second-inning leadoff shot, and then further damaged Javier Vazquez with a decisive three-run homer in the sixth inning. Those contributions proved to be more than enough for J.A. Happ, who limited the Braves to just one run and three hits over 7 2/3 innings.
"Today, it was Happ and Howard," Braves first baseman Adam LaRoche said at the conclusion of a game that was delayed 97 minutes because of rain. "Happ shut us down, and Howard does what he does."
Actually, Howard hadn't homered in his first 38 at-bats of the season against the Braves. But then he hit a game-winning, ninth-inning shot off Rafael Soriano during Friday night's series opener and managed to homer in three of his final eight at-bats of the weekend.
With these three blasts, each of which gave the Phillies a lead, Howard once again became that same intimidating figure who had homered once every 9.75 at-bats against the Braves entering this series.
"When he gets hot, he's as dangerous as anybody in the league," Matt Diaz said. "A lot is made of his strikeouts and his batting average. Any time you can book a guy to hit 35-40 homers and drive in 100 runs, I'd classify that as dangerous. He's definitely dangerous."
With Diaz's fourth-inning, two-out homer supplying the only damage against Happ, the Braves found themselves losing a series against the Phillies for the first time this year. While dropping two of three this weekend, Atlanta fell six games back in the NL East race and 3 1/2 games back in the NL Wild Card race.
Entering this series, the Phillies led the NL in homers and the Braves had surrendered the fewest in the Majors.
Unfortunately for the Braves, they were on the wrong end of the something-has-to-give battle. Eight of the 10 runs they surrendered this weekend came courtesy of home runs.
"We could have won all three," Cox said. "The good thing is that we didn't get swept."
Bouncing back from Friday's one-run loss, the Braves took advantage of Brad Lidge's blunders and gained a one-run victory on Saturday.
Just as the series finale was shaping up as yet another nail-biting contest, Vazquez hung a 1-0 changeup that Howard deposited into the right-field seats. This was the 20th career multi-homer game for the Phillies' first baseman.
"He's a powerful guy, and you have to be careful with him," Vazquez said. "I made two bad pitches to him."
Vazquez, who was charged with four runs and six hits in seven innings, had surrendered just three homers over his previous nine starts. But Howard managed to produce the power necessary to hand the 32-year-old right-hander his first loss in eight starts.
"He pitched great," Cox said. "It was just those two pitches. Otherwise, he was just completely normal out there."
Happ, who is 2-0 with a 1.67 ERA in four career starts against the Braves, found some fortune when Garret Anderson was unable to score from first base on Brian McCann's two-out, first-inning double. The next hit surrendered by the rookie left-hander came courtesy of Diaz's opposite-field homer in the fourth.
"He threw well tonight, and he's got that late life on his fastball that makes his fastball look very good," Diaz said. "When you cheat on his fastball, it makes his offspeed pitches look very good."
The Braves, who had won seven of the nine games played against the Phillies entering this weekend, used two of the season-high six walks issued by Happ to load the bases with two outs in the sixth inning. But that threat ended with Ryan Church flying out to Phillies left fielder Raul Ibanez.
"You've got to take something from the fact that we were in every game," Diaz said. "Earlier in the year, you could probably take more from it."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.