IT WAS ALL set up for a sweep.

The Phillies had scored almost 10 runs a game in their last four, all wins. Cole Hamels had begun it all five games before with a complete-game, one-run, 15-strikeout start in Cincinnati.

Hamels wasn't quite as dominant early yesterday and absolutely came unraveled in the sixth inning against the Nationals in a 4-2 loss, outpitched by Shawn Hill, who lasted eight innings and moved to 2-2.

"Sweeps are sweet," said Hamels, now 2-1.

"We need to win series," manager Charlie Manuel said.

At 9-12, they need to win all four remaining games in April to avoid a losing month, but after starting out 4-11 and winning the last three series, they conceded things aren't as dismal as they were a week ago.

Hamels started it all after Manuel called a low-key team meeting Saturday before Hamels' start, in which he told his team to calm down. Hamels needed that advice yesterday in the sixth.

He gave up consecutive singles to start the inning, then threw an 0-2 wild pitch to Dmitri Young, who had homered to make it 1-0 in the fourth. Young lined out sharply to third, but Hamels was unraveling with men on second and third, overpitching.

"I tried to push it a little bit more. I rushed. I didn't take the time and the initiative to relax," Hamels said. "I tried to blow pitches by guys. That screwed up my mechanics."

Those mechanics were clicking until then. Before the wild pitch only 16 of Hamels' 70 pitches were balls.

Afterward, excluding the subsequent intentional walk, he threw nine balls and nine strikes. He gave up a two-run single to Ryan Church, walked Michael Restovich to load the bases on a 3-2 pitch, then, in the eighth pitch of the next at-bat, he threw ball four in the dirt to Brian Schneider to force in the Nationals' fourth run.

Geoff Geary entered, got a strikeout and a flyout to end the threat. Hamels watched over the dugout railing, mystified.

His catcher, Rod Barajas, sympathized.

"It seemed like every good pitch he made, they fouled off," Barajas said.

Indeed, Schneider fouled off two 2-2 pitches before he was issued his pass - a sequence that only intensified Hamels' pressing.

"I saw a little more fire in him. He really wanted to get out of that inning without giving up any runs," Barajas said. "He seemed to lose control."

Hill never did.

Aaron Rowand extended his career-best hitting streak to 14 games with a solo homer in the eighth to make it 4-1, but Hill retired the next three, hit for himself in the ninth and was set up to complete the game, mainly thanks to a sinker the Phillies compared to that of reigning Cy Young Award-winner Brandon Webb, of the Diamondbacks.

Hill issued a five-pitch walk to Shane Victorino and was done, forced to watch the rest of the brief drama.

Chad Cordero came in to close, but fanned the flames. Chase Utley came a foot from a two-run homer that Church caught at the centerfield fence. Ryan Howard doubled. Cordero gave up a sacrifice fly to Pat Burrell that made it 4-2 before he struck out Wes Helms to end it and log his second save.

It could have been worse, and earlier.

In the fourth, Ryan Zimmerman crushed a shot off the leftfield wall that Burrell gathered and threw to get Zimmerman at second just before Young's homer. Austin Kearns doubled on the first pitch after the homer. Hamels regrouped and struck out Church, one of his four strikeouts.

Next start, Hamels said, he will be better. He has gotten more comfortable with the grip on his curveball, which can be knee-buckling on its own. Combined with his impressive fastball and his signature changeup, the curveball makes Hamels less predictable.

"It's something I can work on," Hamels said. "I can throw it more than five times."

Maybe that would have helped them sweep.

Nevertheless, the Phillies have won six of eight after a 3-10 start. The Marlins visit today to start a three-game series, and the Phillies head to Atlanta on Monday.

They need two wins in the next four games to improve over the two consecutive 10-win Aprils that Manuel has overseen.

A week ago, getting to three games under .500 seemed a mighty mountain to climb.

"We're definitely playing better," Manuel said. "A lot better than we were." *