PHILADELPHIA -- The last two nights at Citizens Bank Park have felt a little like watching the Phillies of the last few years -- great starting pitching, solid bullpen work and timely hitting.
Behind a great start from Roy Halladay, the Phillies beat the first-place Nationals, 4-2, for the second straight game. John Mayberry Jr. homered and drove in three runs to help the Phillies improve to 6-5 against the team that is on pace to unseat them as five-time defending National League East champions.
The victory put Philadelphia (60-67) seven games under .500 for the first time since June 29. Already having handed the Nationals (77-49), owners of baseball's best record, their first road series defeat in more than two months, the Phils have a chance to sweep with Cliff Lee on the mound on Sunday.
"Even in a season that hasn't really gone the way we want, it's important to go out and compete against those teams," said Halladay, who improved to 4-1 in August. "I don't think any of us are just going to roll over and give them games. We kind of want to make a little bit of a statement at the same time. We still want to play. We still want to compete. And we're not going to just give anything away."
Throughout much of this month, Halladay has looked like the pitcher Philadelphia grew accustomed to counting on in 2010 and 2011. After struggling through a strained lat earlier in the season, he has returned to form this month.
In seven strong innings on Saturday, Doc exercised pinpoint precision, throwing an astounding 86 of his 105 pitches for strikes. That's 10 more strikes than in any other start this season. Halladay (8-7) allowed just seven hits and two runs, both on an RBI single in the fifth, and from the fifth or sixth inning on, he said, his cutter was more consistent than it's been in a while.
"I was sitting next to someone on the bench, and we looked up and it was like the sixth inning and he'd only thrown like 15 balls or something like that," said Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who went 0-for-3 against the two-time Cy Young Award winner. "Any time you can do that as a pitcher, and kind of sink it and cut it and mix it up ... you know, he's pretty good. He's not throwing as hard as he used to, but that doesn't really make a difference when you can make it move like he does."
Halladay's now pitched at least seven innings in each of his five August starts. He's 4-1 with a 2.75 ERA for the month.
The Phillies also got a lift from left-handed reliever Antonio Bastardo, whose 5.26 ERA pales in comparison to his 2.64 mark from a year ago. Nonetheless, Bastardo entered a one-run game in the eighth to face the heart of Washington's lineup -- Bryce Harper, Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche. He blew two-strike fastballs by the first two and a two-strike slider by LaRoche to strike out the side.
In many instances, like when he used four pitchers in Friday's eighth inning, manager Charlie Manuel might have pulled Bastardo against the right-handed-hitting Zimmerman. But the Phillies' skipper stuck with his young reliever.
"I think that when he does stuff like he did tonight, that right there shows that I still have confidence in him," Manuel said. "I hope it helps him. He did pretty good."
Gio Gonzalez (16-7), the Nationals' talented left-hander, was denied what would have been his Major League-leading 17th win. The Phillies got off to a good start offensively, putting together good first-inning at-bats against Gonzalez, a former Philadelphia farmhand. When the first inning was all said and done, the Phillies had scored two runs -- on RBI singles from Chase Utley and Mayberry -- and driven Gonzalez's pitch count up to 31.
From then through the fifth, the Phillies mustered only one hit off Gonzalez. But leading off the sixth, Mayberry offered at a 91-mph fastball and smacked it into the left-field seats. After finishing the frame having thrown 104 pitches, Gonzalez was pulled for a pinch-hitter in the seventh. Gonzalez's loss was his first since Aug. 3.
Utley helped create an insurance run in the eighth. After reaching on a hit by pitch, Utley stole second and third base and then scored on a sac fly from Mayberry. In the ninth, Closer Jonathan Papelbon converted his eighth straight save and 29th in 32 chances by retiring the side in order.
Manuel noted it looks like his team is having more fun playing right now.
"I think if you watch us, we've got a little step in our get along," he said.
"I think we're kind of turning the page on things that happened in the past, and starting to look down the road in what we want to accomplish the rest of this year and moving forward," Halladay said. "We want to get back to obviously playing the way that people have come to expect out of the Phillies. We're looking forward to doing that the rest of this year, and hopefully getting ourselves back where we feel like we should be next year."
Jake Kaplan is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.