THE HARDER you look, the less you find. That was the perspective Raul Ibanez offered yesterday after the Phillies won for the 14th time in 17 games, after his three-run homer provided the pivotal blow, after they defeated the New York Mets, 6-5, to maintain a two-game deficit behind Atlanta in the NL East.

Have no doubt: Ibanez looked hard. He watched video. Tinkered with his swing. Picked the brain of anybody who had one to pick. For 4 months, the only things missing were an oracle and the entrails of a goat.

"Oh," Ibanez said slowly, "I looked."

From the earliest days of Grapefruit League play, which he finished hitting 7-for-54, to the final days of June, which he finished hitting .240 with a .721 OPS and six home runs, Ibanez searched for a relevation to end his hitting woes. Then, suddenly, he became one.

In 25 games in July, he hit .337 with four home runs and a .952 OPS, raising his average to .267. In his first five games in August, he is 9-for-23 with one homer and six RBI.

By the end of the win over the Mets, Ibanez had 57 RBI (third on the team and one behind Jayson Werth, who hit a solo homer off R.A. Dickey in the second inning), a .274 batting average (up from .236 a little over a month ago), a .360 on-base percentage (which would be a career high), and a 16-game hitting streak, during which the Phils are 13-3.

"There's a lot of stuff that you do, but the most important thing is to trust in yourself and relax through the swing," said Ibanez, who suffered two abdominal tears midway through last season that hampered him throughout the second half and required offseason surgery. "That's the big thing. And it's a feel thing."

That "feel" showed itself in the third inning, when Ibanez waited for an 0-1 knuckleball from Dickey to dance its way into the strike zone and then dispatched it beyond the centerfield fence, where it bounced off the ivy-covered batter's eye for his 11th home run. The three-run blast was the main entree in a five-run inning that provided a 6-2 lead as the Phils erased a 2-0 run lead that New York seized against Roy Halladay in the first inning.

Like most teams, the Mets had tried to attack the veteran righthander early. Jose Reyes narrowly beat a laser of a throw from rightfielder Domonic Brown for a leadoff double, then scored on an Angel Pagan blooper that fell into no-man's land beyond second base. Pagan then stole second and third, putting himself in position to score on a two-out infield single by Ike Davis.

But Ibanez and the rest of the Phillies' offense gave Halladay plenty of room for error. They'd lost the four other games in which their ace had allowed at least five runs. Yesterday, he carried a 6-2 lead into the sixth, when he allowed a leadoff double to Reyes and an RBI single to Pagan. And while Halladay allowed two more runs in the seventh, he still had room to strike out Carlos Beltran to end the inning with the tying run on second and the go-ahead run on first.

His final line - seven innings, nine hits, five runs (all earned), one walk, 10 strikeouts - might not be scrapbook-worthy. But after Ryan Madson pitched a perfect eighth to set up Brad Lidge's 14th save in 18 tries (he allowed a leadoff single, then recorded three straight outs), the Phillies emerged victorious for Halladay's fourth straight start as he improved to 14-8.

"It's a little easier to sleep at night, taking a win out of it," said Halladay, who despite his struggles struck out Mets stars Beltran and David Wright in six of their seven at-bats, "especially against teams we need to win games against."

By winning two of three games, the Phillies knocked the Mets nine games behind the Braves. They also improved to 62-49, a half-game behind San Francisco (63-49) for the wild-card lead.

Jimmy Rollins went 2-for-4 with a run and is now 18-for-60 (.300) with seven runs and six RBI in his last 14 games. Werth went 3-for-4 with two runs, one of them coming on his 16th home run.

And Ibanez? Well, he finally seems to have found what he's looking for.

"He's talked to everybody, tried everything, lost a lot of sleep, probably," manager Charlie Manuel said. "His bat is quicker. He's taking a better route to the ball. His hands are quicker to the ball. His back side is better. He's got very good balance right now. If you notice, he's kind of bent over and he kind of wags his bat and it kind of loads him up; he cocks his hips and loads his hand. He's a little quicker to the ball."

It isn't easy. But Ibanez is making it look that way.

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