WASHINGTON -- The most encouraging sign for the Phillies on Saturday came in the bottom of the first inning, when Roy Oswalt threw his fifth fastball of the night at Nationals Park.
It hit 94 mph.
Oswalt had been searching for life on his fastball since he aggravated his back in April. It looked like he found it. He had great stuff in a 5-0 victory over the Washington Nationals. He struck out a season-high nine batters in eight scoreless innings, the most he had struck out since he struck out nine June 10, 2010, when he pitched for the Houston Astros.
"He's back," Cole Hamels said. "I think that's pretty much it. He's back. When he has the velocity, you know it's game time."
"The way he threw the ball," Jimmy Rollins said, "vintage Roy. He had that little fastball that he shoots from his chest and by the time the batter swings it's shoulder height. I was excited, man. His velocity was super. I was looking up and he was hitting 93 still late in the game. I was like, 'Wow.' And he was letting it go. You could tell he was confident in his back and in his arm."
It was encouraging because Oswalt has been unhealthy most of the season because of inflammation in his lower back, making him a question mark heading into the final month of the season. He had lost considerable velocity because of the lower back inflammation. He averaged 92.3 mph with his fastball from his first start with the Phillies last July through April 9 in Atlanta, but just 90.9 mph in eight starts from May 17, when he made his first trip to the disabled list, through June 23, before he made his second trip to the DL.
He averaged 92.2 mph Saturday, throwing a season-high 115 pitches.
"The velocity is coming back pretty nice," Oswalt said. "It's coming back for me. I should feel better and better as I go."
"His fastball had more life," Carlos Ruiz said. "You could see a lot of swings and misses. The ball was moving [up]. That was him, you know? He hit 93, 94. It's good. You can see he was healthy. That's the best start. He likes to compete, but when you're hurt it's hard. You could see it. He's quiet, but you could see it in his face and body language. Something was wrong. He didn't feel OK. Now I know he's healthy."
If Oswalt is feeling like himself again -- 15 times the Nationals swung and missed against Oswalt, 10 of them on fastballs -- that is good news for a rotation that already has Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Hamels and Vance Worley throwing well. (Hamels missed his last start because of inflammation in his left shoulder, but he said he should be able to rejoin the rotation next Friday against Florida). Oswalt was the team's best starter the final two months of last season. If he can return to form the rotation will be more than formidable heading into the postseason.
Think about it. While most playoff teams will be debating whether or not to pitch their ace on short rest, the Phillies could have four well-rested aces pitching on regular or extra rest.
It appears the Phillies made the right call Friday, when they scratched Oswalt from his scheduled start. He warmed up and returned to the dugout when rain came in the top of the first inning, causing a two-hour, 22-minute delay. Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee decided with Oswalt's back there was no reason to send him back out to pitch.
Dubee felt pushing him back one day made better sense.
"It's the first time I've started two games back to back," Oswalt said. "I told them if they keep doing that, they're going to have to pay me more."
The Phillies gave Oswalt plenty of support. They took a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning when Wilson Valdez tripled to score John Mayberry Jr. and Ruiz. Hunter Pence hit a solo homer to left in the sixth to make it 3-0. Rollins' single to center in the sixth scored two more runs to make it 5-0.
The fans loved it. It felt like a home game at Citizens Bank Park with some fans holding signs calling Nationals Park "Citizens Bank South." The Nationals had the largest crowd in their ballpark's history on Saturday night, with 44,685 fans.
Hamels estimated 44,000 were Phillies fans.
Oswalt wasn't surprised.
"You get used to it," he said. "It's pretty much like a small Philly every time we come down here."
Phillies fans had plenty to cheer for Saturday after blowing a ninth-inning lead Friday. But the biggest reason to cheer was Oswalt, who was looking like his old self.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.