ROY HALLADAY, who walked three batters in a game only four times in his first 65 starts with the Phillies, issued walks to three of the first five batters he faced last night.

Halladay, who racked up 61 complete games in 269 starts from 2003 through 2011, thanks to his incomparable efficiency and control, threw more balls than strikes in a 29-pitch first inning against the Nationals.

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Ten batters into the game, Halladay had given free passes to half of the Nationals he faced by way of a walk or a hit batter.

A little less than 4 months removed from shoulder surgery, the 36-year-old Halladay looked cooked through two innings of his third start since returning to active duty. Halladay, however, magically limited the collateral damage on the scoreboard to one run and somehow persevered through six innings.

But the Phillies offense couldn't save their former ace in a 3-2 defeat, their fourth in the last five games.

"This guy is a tremendous competitor," manager Ryne Sandberg said. "That's what hung him in there and got him through the six innings. He gave us a chance to win."

The bullpen quickly made Halladay's effort a waste upon entering the game.

With the Phils holding onto a 2-1 lead upon Halladay's exit, journeyman Zach Miner served up a game-tying home run to the second batter he faced, Nationals slugger Ryan Zimmerman, in the seventh inning.

In the eighth, Jake Diekman walked the first batter he faced, and that baserunner eventually crossed the plate without either a hit or a ball hit out of the infield in the inning.

Pinch-runner Jeff Kobernus stole second base, advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt and raced home, and arrived safely, on Steve Lombardozzi's ground ball to second base. The Phils appeared to tie the game in the bottom half of the inning, when Chase Utley broke for home from third on a wild pitch with one out.

But after the batter, Darin Ruf, struck out, the inning was over when Utley was called out at the plate. Nationals catcher Jhonatan Solano, who had just entered the game at the start of the inning, made an athletic, diving tag to nab a headfirst-sliding Utley at the plate.

"He nipped him just before the plate," Sandberg said. "It was a hustling play, but it was a chance you take right there with Chase's ability to run."

But the scoring plays in a game between two teams going nowhere in 2013 paled in level of importance to continuing to figure out the puzzle that is Roy Halladay.

Halladay, a free agent at the end of the season, is 1-1 with a 4.24 ERA in those three starts. But a further examination of the numbers reveals a short resumé that's been erratic at best.

Halladay walked five batters and hit two others last night. His five walks were the most in a Phillies uniform; his most recent five-walk game before last night came on Aug. 29, 2007, while with the Toronto Blue Jays.

"I think it was a combination of being a little bit rusty - it's like spring training in that I'm dealing with different mechanics than before, a different arm slot," Halladay explained of his early-game wildness. "I feel like it took me a little bit to find the right balance of everything. It's been a little bit of a battle . . . Those first couple of innings, I was just a little inconsistent with my mechanics, but once I made a few pitches and feel where I needed to be, I could repeat it more often."

Halladay has walked nine batters, while striking out eight, in 17 innings since returning from the DL. But he's also hit an alarming four batters with pitches.

To put that into better perspective, Halladay hit four batters all season in 2011, when he faced 933 batters. He's faced 76 batters since returning from the DL.

"The only thing that's tough, really, is coming off surgery and everything else, you're just so used to being able to repeat mechanically without thinking about it," Halladay said, continuing to make the point that mastering his mechanics is his most important goal in the season's final 3 weeks. "Now, arm is in a different spot. It's more of a challenge than it was early on. It's just a matter of getting used to that."

Halladay appeared to adjust well midgame.

The second batter Halladay hit against the Nationals came during a four-inning stretch when he retired 11 of the 12 batters he faced. Halladay had a dreadful start and an odd final pitching line, but he managed to give the Phillies a chance to win.

"I was feeling sorry for him in the first couple of innings," Washington manager Davey Johnson said. "Then I was hating him as he went along, because he got better."

The loss was the first for the Phillies in the three starts Halladay has made since returning from the disabled list. Despite the hard-to-watch start, Halladay felt last night was an encouraging step forward.

"I definitely feel confident that . . . I know that if I put in the work, that I put in the time, that I can have those results and that I can have those changes," Halladay said. "That's a lesson that I learned from going down , that the only way to make those adjustments and to get better is by working at it. I don't just expect it to show up overnight."

Halladay will likely have four more starts in 2013. His progression won't happen overnight, and it might not reach the level he wants before the end of 2013, either.

If Halladay's progress continues to play out like last night, the Phillies will have a difficult decision in assessing whether he's worth re-signing for 2014 and beyond.

"I personally think this season could go on another month and you won't see the guy you see April," pitching coach Rich Dubee said, speaking to Halladay's current rehab mode. "When he's done , he rests for a couple weeks, and then he'll get back into it. It's like a second breath of fresh air. He's going to get stronger, I think he's going to add velocity, and he's going to get better."

On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21