PHILADELPHIA—Cole Hamels’ expression was subtle. After escaping a bases loaded jam in the eighth inning of a three-run ballgame, first with a Ryan Zimmerman strikeout, then a Jayson Werth flyout to the warning track, the Phillies $144 million man coolly paced back to the dugout.

Not a lot there.

Can’t say the same about this Phillies season. Not anymore.

With a 4-2 win over the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park tonight, baseball here is increasingly more interesting. Can this team really contend? Do they have enough time to convince GM Ruben Amaro before the trade deadline? Have they already? Was his mind ever open in the first place?

On the last day of last month, the Phillies sagged to a season-high five games under .500.

Nine days into this one, they’re one under for the first time since June 8.

Six of eight games, they’ve won now, with a good shot to make it three straight series.

What the next month has in store, who knows. But if the team hopes to stay intact and in contention, it’s absolutely critical that the Phillies ace earns that distinction. How he often hasn’t in 2013. How he did tonight.

With closer Jonathan Papelbon unavailable after four appearances in five days, Hamels muscled through eight must-have innings of one-run ball despite six hits with four strikeouts and one walk, lowering his ERA to 4.17 on the year, all when his Phillies needed him most.

Just like that, Hamels’ first set of back to back wins since his last two starts of 2012.

This season, meanwhile, this season has had more downs than ups.

His performance tonight might soften even the harshest skeptics.

“Threw a heck of a game,” manager Charlie Manuel said.

It culminated in a pressure-packed eighth inning.

When Hamels missed on a 3-2 fastball to Harper, Manuel began a slow plod to the pitcher’s mound. After a few words, he turned back to the dugout with empty hands.

“He wanted to give me a mental break,” Hamels said with a grin. “He just wanted to give me a breath. He knew I was going to finish the inning.”

“Not a whole lot,” Manuel said of what he said to Hamels. “I said, ‘I’m not here to take you out. I’m here to look at you.’ I said, ‘You’ve got him.’ He grinned and said, ‘I’ve got him.’”

He had him. And Werth.

"That's a big time battle," Manuel said of the showdown with Werth. "That's what baseball's all about. Werth came close, but no cigar."

The 33,502 in attendance – the few believers, you might say – rose to applaud.

“The fans, that was something we haven’t seen here all year,” Hamels said.

Hamels’ effort preserved something else we hasn’t seen much of: solid run support in a Hamels start.

Through five innings of Jordan Taylor’s third start this season for Washington, the Phillies bats had produced one run, on a Domonic Brown RBI in the fourth, but on only two more hits (five) than double plays (three), the last by Carlos Ruiz with men on first and second and no outs in the fifth.

Yet they hung three in the sixth. After Ben Revere and Jimmy Rollins lead off with singles, Chase Utley chopped one to first, Adam LaRoche put a throw to second in the dirt, and Revere scooted home for the go-ahead run. Michael Young rainbowed one to center over Harper for extra cushion.

They’d need it. Antonio Bastardo eventually popped out Phillie-killer Scott Hairston for his second save of the year, but not before walking Anthony Rendon and serving an RBI double to Wilson Ramos that brought to the plate the game-tying run and few fuzzy feelings.

For the second straight night, the Phillies endured a frightful ninth inning. That’s not likely to change. And so, their ceiling for the rest of the way is likely to be set by a bullpen that has surrendered 12 runs in 20 innings over this otherwise uplifting eight-game run.

Their best chance at realizing, if not overcoming it, is Hamels being this Hamels. Not the one that, in his previous three starts, the 29-year-old was battered for a 5.21 ERA over 19 innings. The one that, in his second start after getting a two days of “mental rest” seems to have him turning a corner.

“I know I can be accountable for what I have to do, and know that I haven’t really been able to get the job done earlier on,” Hamels said. “I have to take it up a notch.”

In that respect, consider Hamels' performance and his team’s potential indelibly linked.