Howard steps up in Philly

Virtually every contending club depends on several players' having career years. Star players are, of course, expected to contribute. But a team's supporting cast must also chip in if a club is going to avoid fading when the games pile up and the late-summer heat starts to wilt the also-rans.

Unexpected contributions are sometimes found when prized prospects make their big-league debuts with a splash. Sometimes, they come completely out of the blue when a struggling veteran manages to put the pieces of his game back together. Sometimes, they are the result of patience, persistence, good coaching -- and lots of luck.

Each of the remaining eight National League contenders has had at least one example of these kinds of players, spanning the gamut from the much-anticipated debut of Jeff Francoeur to the completely unexpected resurgence of Jae Seo.