Hamels the beneficiary of Howard's tear

Hamels the beneficiary of Howard's tear

WASHINGTON -- It could have been prettier.

It definitely could have been prettier.

Cole Hamels had hoped to follow Roy Halladay's Opening Day gem Monday with an equally efficient performance Wednesday night against the Nationals at Nationals Park. He labored instead. He struggled with his command through five innings, but avoided the big inning that plagued him last season in an 8-4 victory over the Nationals.

Hamels, who allowed two earned runs in five innings, helped the Phillies to their first 2-0 start since 2003. They can sweep the Nationals and open the season 3-0 for the first time since 2001 with a victory Thursday.

Ryan Howard hit a mammoth two-run home run to center field in the fifth, chasing Nationals starter Jason Marquis in the process, and passed Greg Luzinksi for fifth on the Phillies' all-time home run list with 224.

Placido Polanco scored three runs, Chad Durbin pitched two scoreless innings, Antonio Bastardo got a big out in the eighth and Ryan Madson picked up a four-out save, but Hamels was the story because he is trying to rebound from a disappointing 2009. And his turnaround is critical to the team's success.

"No matter what it looks like you just have to battle," Hamels said. "It's not necessarily going to be clean and clear. You really have to be able to work as hard as you possibly can, and execute one pitch after another. And if you're not able to get every pitch that you'd like, if you're not able to hit your spots, you just have to go to the next one and keep plugging away."

Hamels threw 103 pitches in those five innings, just 63 for strikes. He allowed five hits, three runs (two earned runs), four walks and one home run and struck out five.

"I think that was the most walks of the year," Hamels joked. "I've always been a strike thrower. You pride yourself on not walking guys and being able to execute one pitch after another, but unfortunately sometimes it just doesn't happen."

How rare is a four-walk start by Hamels?

He walked four or more batters four times his rookie season in 2006, including his first two career starts on the road against Cincinnati and Milwaukee. He walked four or more batters just three times the following three seasons -- he had a career-high five walks June 29, 2007, against the Mets -- before he walked four batters Wednesday.

Hamels knows that wasn't him.

He knows he can improve.

"Sixty-three strikes? That's rare for me," he said. "That's something to build off."

"He'll have better stuff once he gets his command down," manager Charlie Manuel said. "In order to go deep in the game, he'll have to pitch better than that early. But that was his first time out. It was OK."

The Phillies took a 2-0 lead in the first inning, but Hamels threw a sinker to Ian Desmond with two outs in the third and he hit a solo homer to center field.

It was Hamels' only sinker of the night.

"Didn't sink," Hamels said. "It's a work in progress. I don't have a Roy Halladay sinker yet."

Hamels then walked Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn, and Josh Willingham followed with a single to left field to score Dunn to tie the game at 2. After Hamels singled to center to score Shane Victorino and give the Phillies a 3-2 lead in the fourth, Howard committed an error with two outs in the bottom of the inning. Desmond hit a cutter to left field for a double to scored Nyjer Morgan to tie the game.

Polanco hit a leadoff double in the fifth, Chase Utley singled to score Polanco to give the Phillies a 4-3 lead and Howard redeemed himself from his error with a two-run home run to center field to make it 6-3.

"I just wanted to go back out there and -- I wasn't trying to hit a home run -- try to have a good AB," Howard said. "Try to hit a double or something."

Howard went 2-for-5 with three RBIs.

"We tried some different things on him," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said. "It's a game of adjustments. He is making adjustments on our pitchers, and our pitchers will try to do something else. He is so dangerous."

Much had been made about Hamels' curveball and cutter entering the season. Hamels wanted to be more than just a fastball-changeup pitcher to keep hitters guessing. He got some outs with his cutter. Dunn grounded out on a cutter with a runner on second with two outs in the first. Mike Morse grounded out on a cutter with two outs and the bases loaded in the third.

But the good news for Hamels is that he is in much better shape than last season, when he entered the season lacking arm speed. His fastball hit the low 90s Wednesday night, which is a good sign.

"Anytime I go out and feel strong and feel healthy, I think that's kind of the key," Hamels said. "You just have to build from there. It's a foundation for the next start."

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.