PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies' bullpen was one of the culprits of the club's disappointing first half of the season. But over the last few weeks, the relief corps has been throwing up a lot of zeros on the scoreboard.

Since July 20, a span of 17 games, Philadelphia's 'pen has allowed just seven earned runs over 43 1/3 innings, good for a 1.45 ERA, which ranks second in the National League during that span. Its combined .179 opponents' batting average during that time is the best in the NL.

"That's a good sign," manager Charlie Manuel said before Wednesday's series finale against the Braves. "That's definitely a good sign. We do have some good arms in that bullpen. ... We've got some talent. And they'll get better the more they pitch, of course."

Despite some struggles this season, left-hander Antonio Bastardo (2-3, 4.79) has not allowed a run in nine of his last 10 appearances. Rookies Jeremy Horst (0-0, 1.50 in 13 games) and Michael Schwimer (2-1, 3.64 in 30 games) have also been effective. Schwimer entered Wednesday having given up only two hits in the last 26 at-bats against him.

"I think Horst has been doing very good. He's been really consistent," Manuel said. "Schwimer's been doing fine. How we'll tell is the bigger situations they get in and how consistent they can be. That tells a lot. I think that'll tell you how much work that they're going to need going forward, too."

For the season, the bullpen's 4.33 ERA ranks 25th in the Major Leagues.

Manuel expects Howard's bat to get going soon

PHILADELPHIA -- Despite Ryan Howard's struggles, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has continued to express faith in his big left-handed slugger.

"He's coming," the skipper said after Tuesday's game. "He's very capable of finding his swing. He'll keep working."

In the first inning of Tuesday's 3-0 win against the Braves, Howard hit his first home run since July 23. It was a key swing, as it knocked in two of the game's three runs and provided starter Cole Hamels with some early support. However, the first baseman struggled to connect with any pitches after the home run, as he struck out in his final three at-bats.

Wednesday marked Howard's 26th game since returning from his left Achilles injury. The slugger hit a game-tying homer in the fifth inning of the Phillies' 12-6 loss against the Braves.

Worth noting

• Third baseman Placido Polanco briefly fielded ground balls before Wednesday's game. Polanco has been on the 15-day disabled list with lower back inflammation since July 23. He is eligible to be activated, but is not ready to return to the field.

• Manuel has had outfielder Nate Schierholtz on his club for a week. So far, he likes what he sees. Schierholtz, a part of the Hunter Pence trade with the Giants, is hitting .318 with a homer and two RBIs since joining the Phillies.

"He's been holding his own," Manuel said. "He's been good. He's a good defensive right fielder and he's got a good arm. ... I think in our ballpark he'll pop some for us every now and then, too."

• Right-hander Tyler Cloyd started for Triple-A Lehigh Valley on Wednesday night. Cloyd entered the game boasting an 11-1 record with a 1.93 ERA for the IronPigs.

• Former Phillies farmhand Jason Knapp was released by the Indians on Wednesday. Knapp was part of the package the Phillies sent to the Indians to acquire Cliff Lee before the Trade Deadline in July 2009.

• The Phillies' Venezuelan Summer League team won its championship game, 4-0, against the Mariners' affiliate on Wednesday.

• Howard visited for more than two hours on Tuesday with physically and developmentally challenged children who play in the Challenger Division of the Ridley Area Little League.