Ryan Howard Lakewood

Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, left, signs autographs for Lakewood BlueClaws fans during a rehab appearance at FirstEnergy Park on Thursday in Lakewood. Howard went 2-for-4 with three RBIs in the first game of his rehab assignment.

Associated Press photo by Thomas P. Costello/The Asbury Park Press

LAKEWOOD - Ryan Howard stepped to the plate with one out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning Thursday night.

His team, the Lakewood BlueClaws, trailed by two runs.

Howard hadn't faced a similar situation since last October.

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The Phillies' first baseman, who is recovering from a torn Achilles' tendon, hit a sacrifice fly to knock in a run and help the BlueClaws beat the West Virginia Power 7-6 before 8,000 fans at FirstEnergy Park.

"It was fun to be a part of this and get back into game-on-the-line type of situations," Howard said. "My focus was to get at least one run home and let Big Duff take care of the rest."

Big Duff is Phillies prospect Chris Duffy, who followed Howard with a two-run, winning single.

Howard batted fourth as the designated hitter for the BlueClaws. He went 2-for-4 with three RBIs. In addition to the sacrifice fly, Howard pulled three ground balls all to the same place, just to the right of second base. One of his hits was an infield single. He struck out swinging in his fourth at-bat.

"Adrenaline kicked in and natural instinct took over," said Howard of his performance. "I'm not worried about my Achilles. It's just getting back into game situations, the speed of the game, offense and defense."

Howard will continue his comeback at 7 tonight at Lakewood. He will start at first base.

"Right now, it feels great," Howard said of his Achilles' tendon. "I do expect there to be some soreness, but I don't think it will be a lot."

Plenty of Phillies have come here over the years to the play for the BlueClaws while they rehabilitate from injuries.

It is doubtful any of those past rehab assignments held the importance or the urgency of Howard's appearance Thursday night.

Howard tore his Achilles' tendon making the last out of the Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the St. Louis with Cardinals on Oct. 7.

Howard now has 20 days to return to the Phillies, under Major League Baseball rules, or the team must restart him with another trip to the DL.

The Phillies have struggled without him. Philadelphia lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-4 Thursday. The Phillies (36-42) trail the first place Washington Nationals in the National League East by nine games.

Howard hasn't hit fewer than 31 home runs the last six seasons. He hasn't driven in fewer than 116 runs during any season in the same stretch. Nobody among the current Phillies has been able to make up that production.

Not even the return of Chase Utley from his knee troubles as been able to shake the Phillies out of their doldrums.

Utley made his season debut Wednesday. He hit a home run in his first at-bat. But despite the drama the Phillies lost to Pittsburgh.

How much interest is there in Howard's return?

Philadelphia's Comcast SportsNetwork televised his at-bats live Thursday.

Obviously Howard wants to return to the Phillies sooner rather than later, but he's not going to be careless with his comeback.

"I've been patient for eight or nine months," he said. "Another week or two weeks is not going to kill me. You want to be back up there as a soon as you can, but at the same time you want to take the proper precautions."

Thursday was a homecoming for Howard. He first emerged as top Phillies prospect when he played for Lakewood in 2002. He hit 19 home runs and knocked in 87 runs that season. Howard also made rehab appearances at Lakewood in 2007 and 2010.

The BlueClaws have retired the No. 29 jersey Howard wore for the team.

On Thursday, the public-address announcer played "Welcome Back," the theme song to 1970s sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter" when Howard stepped to the plate in the bottom of the second inning.

"I was here 10 years ago," Howard said. "That kind of hit me a little bit (Thursday). I was like, 'Ten years already?' "

Howard had only played simulated games in Florida before Thursday's outing.

The most important part of his performance happened after he singled in his second at-bat.

Duffy followed with a line drive to right field. It appeared headed for at least a double, but Hagerstown's right fielder made a running catch. Howard, who was nearly at second base, sprinted back and slid into first to avoid a double play.

"It felt really good to be able to run back, and pop-up slide," Howard said. "It felt good."

One of the best things about rehab appearances are that they allow fans to get close to major-league players.

The Blue Claws wore powder blue jerseys in honor of prostate awareness day. The jerseys resembled the ones the Phillies wore in the 1980s.

The shirts were auctioned off after the game. Vicky Leone of Brick Township bid for Howard's jersey. Howard stood along the first baseline and egged on bidders.

"I've been coming to these games since their first season," Leone said, "and I knew back (in 2002) that he was going to be special. You follow somebody their whole career and you have to have it."

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