“Three homers in a game. I’ve never done that before,” 26-year-old Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard said after adding to his club-record season total in an 8-7 win over the Atlanta Braves in the first game of a doubleheader on September 3, 2006.1 Braves pitcher Tim Hudson, who surrendered all three of Howard’s home runs, complimented the slugging All-Star, saying, “He’s pretty hot right now. … You just have to tip your hat.”2
Howard was selected by the Phillies in the fifth round of the 2001 amateur draft from Missouri State University and experienced his first major-league action in September 2004. He started 2005 in the minor leagues, but with first baseman Jim Thome suffering from elbow and back injuries, Howard was recalled on July 2 and inserted in the lineup. His 22 home runs, 63 RBIs, and .288 batting average in 88 games earned him the National League Rookie of the Year Award.
When Thome was traded to the Chicago White Sox in November 2005, Howard became Philadelphia’s full-time first baseman. By the All-Star break in 2006, the lefty-swinging Howard already had 28 home runs. He won the All-Star Game’s Home Run Derby and kept up the pace in the second half of the season, hitting 14 more homers in August. Howard’s upper-deck blast off Pedro Astacio of the Washington Nationals at RFK Stadium on August 31 gave him 49 for the season, one more than Mike Schmidt’s previous team record of 48, set in 1980.
After Howard’s record-setting homer in Washington, the Phillies returned home to play the Braves. A July rainout and another rainout in Friday night’s series opener resulted in back-to-back doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday. With a split of the September 2 twin bill, the Phillies, seeking their first postseason berth since they won the NL pennant in 1993, had won 24 of 37 to move to within one game of the San Diego Padres for the NL’s wild-card spot.3
With a crowd 37,044 enjoying the sunshine for the Sunday doubleheader, Jamie Moyer started the first game for the Phillies. The 43-year-old left-hander had been acquired from the Seattle Mariners on August 19 to boost the rotation. He was victorious in his first two starts on the road, and this was his first home game for the Phillies.
The teams traded solo home runs in the first two innings. Braves shortstop Edgar Renteria stroked a home run to left in the first inning. Hudson—in his second season with the Braves after six successful years with the Oakland A’s—retired the Phillies in order in the first, and then faced Howard to lead off the second.
Howard blasted Hudson’s first pitch to him into the right-center-field bleachers, his 50th homer of the season. He became the first Phillies player to hit 50 home runs in a season.4
After Moyer retired the Braves in the third, the Phillies added four runs in the bottom half of the inning. Hudson walked Abraham Nuñez, who advanced to second on a sacrifice by Moyer. Jimmy Rollins followed with a triple to center, plating Nuñez, and Shane Victorino stroked a line-drive single to left to score Rollins.
Chase Utley was retired on a fly ball to left, and Howard stepped to the plate. Hudson threw a high inside pitch that backed Howard off the plate, and Howard responded by driving a 2-and-1 pitch into the visitors bullpen. The two-run homer extended the lead to 5-1.
Moyer and Hudson settled in, trading scoreless innings through the top of the sixth. Howard broke the scoreless string in the bottom of the sixth when he reached out on a 1-and-2 pitch and clubbed a towering shot to left for his third home run in as many at-bats.
As they did after his first two home runs, the jubilant fans summoned Howard from the dugout for a curtain call. He was the first Phil with three homers in a game since Mike Lieberthal hit three against the Los Angeles Dodgers in August 2002.
Hudson commented, “That last homer he hit, I felt it was the most impressive one. He’s so far off the plate, and it was a four-seamer [fastball] that was up and away.”5
The score remained 6-1 entering the eighth. Through the first seven innings, Moyer had surrendered only two singles and a walk after Renteria’s first-inning home run, but the Braves stirred in the eighth. Left fielder Matt Diaz led off with a line-drive single to center. Todd Pratt, a Phillies backup catcher for eight seasons, followed with a homer to deep left, narrowing the score to 6-3.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel lifted Moyer after 103 pitches and brought in Ryan Madson to face Renteria. On a 2-and-1 pitch, Renteria hit a grounder to second. Utley flipped the ball to Rollins, forcing Prado, and Rollins gunned a throw to Howard, completing the inning-ending double play.
Left-hander Macay McBride replaced Hudson to face left-handers Utley and Howard in the bottom of the eighth. Utley grounded out to first, but Howard reached base for the fourth time with a single to center. He was stranded as Jeff Conine grounded out and Pat Burrell struck out.
Madson returned to the mound for the ninth inning because Phillies closer Tom Gordon was on the disabled list with a sore shoulder. The first three Braves reached base. Willie Aybar started the rally with a single to right and Andruw Jones (who had a 51-homer season of his own in 2005) and Jeff Francoeur followed with singles to load the bases.
With left-hander Adam LaRoche due up, Manuel replaced Madson with lefty Fabio Castro. The 21-year-old Castro was pitching in his 13th game for the Phillies since joining the team on June 29 in a trade with the Texas Rangers. LaRoche was retired at first on a grounder, but Abyar scored and the other runners advanced a base.
Manuel stuck with Castro to face right-hander Diaz, who hit .322 with a .495 slugging percentage against lefties over his 11-season big-league career. Castro threw strike one, then Diaz blasted a home run to deep right, giving the Braves a 7-6 lead. “He looked to me like he could come in and do the job,” Diaz said of Castro. “… But he left the ball up to me and that hurt him, that’s all.”6
It was the third time in four games that the Phillies had surrendered a ninth-inning lead. Geoff Geary replaced Castro to get the final two outs, sending the game to the bottom of the ninth.
Braves manager Bobby Cox summoned veteran Bob Wickman to close out the game. The 37-year-old right-hander had saved 240 games in 14 major-league seasons. He had converted his past 15 save opportunities, including 11 since being traded from the Cleveland Indians to the Braves on July 20.
Rollins hit a line-drive single to left, scoring Thurston with the tying run, and the other runners advanced to second and third on the throw. The next batter, Victorino, smashed a single past the drawn-in infield, plating the winning run. “I let the team down,” said Wickman. “It’s September. Can’t let that happen.”7
The ninth-inning rally prevented a potentially devastating loss for the Phillies and preserved the luster of the three-homer effort from Howard.8
He talked about his performance, saying, “I was cool with one. That would have been a good day. Two would have been a good day. Then you get that third one and it’s like, wow. But the significance was 50, 51, and 52 and being the only Phillies player to hit 50 in a season.”9
The praise for Howard was effusive from both managers. “I thought [Hudson] threw great, but one guy kept getting him—Howard,” Cox said. “He’s getting everybody. Great hitter.”10 Phillies manager Manuel was at a loss for words: “What can you say? It’s unreal.”11
The Phillies won 14 of 19 games from the second game of the September 2 doubleheader through September 24 but finished three games out of the wild-card spot. Howard ended the season with 58 home runs and was recognized with the National League MVP Award.
This article was fact-checked by Bruce Slutsky and copy-edited by Len Levin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball Reference and Retrosheet for information including the box score and play-by-play.
1 Todd Zolecki, “Half Empty: Phils Lose Ground in Wild-Card Race,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 4, 2006: C1.
2 Rob Parent, “Hudson Tips His Hat to Howard after Barrage,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 4, 2006: C5.
3 Going into 2006, the Braves had won 14 of 15 division titles since 1991, when they were in the NL West. They arrived in Philadelphia in fourth place in the NL East, 19½ games behind the first-place New York Mets and four games behind the Padres for the wild-card spot.
5 Parent, “Hudson Tips His Hat to Howard after Barrage.”
6 Todd Zolecki and Phil Sheridan, “Phillies Notes,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 4, 2006: C5.
7 David O’Brien, “Second Split in 2 Days,” Atlanta Constitution, September 4, 2006: D4.
8 The Braves won the second game of the doubleheader, 3-1 in 11 innings, for a split.
9 Paul Casella, “Howard’s Remarkable ’06 Ignited HOF Push,” MLB.com, January 19, 2022, https://www.mlb.com/news/ryan-howard-s-historic-2006-season.
10 O’Brien, “Second Split in 2 Days.”
11 “Howard Pummels Braves,” Columbus (Georgia) Ledger-Enquirer, September 4, 2006: B4.