Phillies foil Nationals' plan to throw lefty at their lefties

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Ryan Howard is greeted by third base coach Juan Samuel after hitting a home run in the fourth. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

WASHINGTON - They say the ball always finds you, and the same is true of the manager. Yesterday, when Charlie Manuel unveiled a lineup that for the first time stacked his three lefty sluggers in succession, you just knew the move would play a part at a pivotal point in the game.

Opposing managers have long used lefthanded relief specialists as a sort of antidote for the type of power the Phillies possess in their lineup. Lately, Manuel has attempted to counteract the strategy by hitting Chase Utley second, Ryan Howard fourth and Raul Ibanez fifth, with a righthanded or switch-hitting bat in between. The message: If you are going to come after my lefties, you'll have to work for it.

Yesterday, for whatever reason, Manuel switched things up and hit Utley third, Howard fourth and Ibanez fifth against Nationals righthander Livan Hernandez. And, sure enough, when the top of the seventh came and the Phillies had the tying run on first with one out, Washington manager Jim Riggleman signaled to the bullpen for lefty reliever Sean Burnett.

"It's nothing new," Howard said later, after the Phillies improved to 34-20 with a 5-4 victory at Nationals Park. "Teams are going to try to bring lefties, especially when you've got Chase, myself, Raul stacked up."

The only solution is for those lefties to hit, and that is exactly what Howard and company did. Trailing 4-3, Utley drew a walk from Burnett, moving Placido Polanco to second. Then Howard knocked a single into right, scoring Polanco and moving Utley to third.

Ibanez finished things off with a sacrifice fly that gave the Phillies the go-ahead run.

While Utley and Ibanez have respectable track records against lefthanded pitching, the otherwise super Howard has long struggled with the kryptonite.

Heading into the game, Howard was hitting just .197 with no home runs and a .546 on-base percentage plus slugging in 76 plate appearances against lefties, compared with a .276 average, .973 OPS and 11 home runs in 152 plate appearances against righties. He had struck out 39 times in 127 at-bats against righties, 25 times in 71 at-bats against lefties.

But Manuel has started to see some signs that Howard is finding his swing against southpaws. On Saturday, Howard hit a two-run double off Mets lefty Tim Byrdak to crack a 2-2 tie in the top of the eighth inning. Then came yesterday's game-tying single off Burnett.

"He's been staying on the ball longer," Manuel said. "Once he gets up in the count, he's been doing a lot better with pitch selection and looking for a ball to hit. He's starting to learn."

The seventh-inning rally rescued a game for Roy Halladay, who finally looked a bit human against a team he has dominated throughout his career. The Phillies tied it in the fourth inning thanks to back-to-back home runs by Howard and Ibanez.

Since the Nationals moved from Montreal in 2005, they had faced Halladay in eight starts before yesterday. In those eight starts, they had held a lead for exactly three innings - the first three of Halladay's career as a Phillie, when he allowed a run in the bottom of the first on Opening Day 2010 before watching the Phillies score five runs in the fourth en route to an 11-1 win.

In 39 innings against the Nats since joining the Phillies, Halladay had allowed five runs, six extra-base hits and no home runs with 39 strikeouts and seven walks.

Yesterday, he allowed four extra-base hits, three of them solo home runs - by Mike Morse to lead off the second, by Danny Espinosa with two outs in the fifth and by Laynce Nix leading off the sixth.

Halladay (7-3) was charged with four runs, allowing 10 hits and no walks with five strikeouts in seven innings. He finished his day by escaping a first-and-third, no-outs situation, preserving the one-run lead.

The Phillies were 3-6 in games in which Halladay allowed more than three runs last season. The only other time he did it this year was on April 19 against the Brewers, when he allowed six in 6 innings of a 9-0 loss.

Halladay has recorded a decision in 10 of his 12 starts this season. He finished last season with decisions in 31 of his 33 starts.

For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese.

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