IT MIGHT BE a surprise to hear that Aaron Rowand, the Phillies' most swashbuckling outfielder, is actually a pretty cautious guy. He makes sure that he stretches and ices. He'll sit in the whirlpool if he need be and he still has his left ankle, the one he broke last season, taped. He takes every precaution.

The reason he's so careful before and after games, of course, is so that he doesn't have to be during them.

It's paying off, too. Despite a sore left hamstring that could have sidelined him for a game or two, Rowand extended his hitting streak to 12 games last night.

Not only that, the hits he had were instrumental in extending another streak. The Phillies won their fourth straight, 6-3, over the Nationals.

His two-out double in the second drove in the tying run after the Nationals scored first in the top of the inning.

His leadoff homer in the seventh tied the score again, setting the table for the Phillies to break the game open in the eighth.

During his streak, one short of his career high, he's batting .435 with three homers and eight RBI.

"I'm seeing the ball good," he said. "I'm trying to keep it as simple as possible. Because just because I have a streak, I could go out [tonight] and hit the ball hard four times and not get a hit."

Rowand has been batting seventh most of the season. Charlie Manuel said he isn't thinking about moving him up in the order any time soon, although he quickly added that he feels comfortable slotting him in almost anywhere.

"If you look, last year I led him off and I hit him second and fifth and sixth and seventh, all over the place," Manuel said. "Right now he's having some success hitting where he is, but he's the kind of guy I figure I can move around."

Rowand agreed. "It doesn't matter to me, as long as I'm playing," he said. "When I was with the White Sox, I was bounced all over the place. [Manager Ozzie Guillen] liked to keep guys in the same place. Everybody but me.

"And that's fine because my approach is going to be the same, no matter where I hit."

Nationals starter Jason Bergmann had quickly retired the first two batters of the second inning last night when Wes Helms hit a grounder down the third-base line. Ryan Zimmerman made a nice play on the ball and got off a strong throw behind the bag as he drifted into foul territory, but first-base umpire Phil Cuzzi ruled that Dmitri Young came off the base. The official scorer gave Young an error on the play.

Rowand followed by roping a double into left-center, driving Helms home with the tying run.

The Phillies were again down by a run when Rowand led off the bottom of the seventh against Nats reliever Saul Rivera . . . and hit his second pitch into the seats in left-center to again tie the score.

Rowand is an interesting measuring stick for the Phillies as a whole. He was so frustrated by his lack of hits during spring training - he says it's because he was hitting the ball hard without getting positive results - that he sat out several games late in the Grapefruit League as Manuel tried to let him clear his head.

So when he started to turn it around 2 weeks ago, it was a concrete example for the rest of the team that things could get better.

Rowand now concedes that too much emphasis was put on getting off to a fast start. "We probably put too much pressure on ourselves," he said. "But now it's turned around and we've started to show what we're capable of doing. And that can just snowball."

Rowand demonstrated in the top of the second that he won't hold back once the game starts. Austin Kearns led off by hitting a sinking line drive that he tried to make a diving catch on. Instead, the ball hopped over his glove and what should have been a single wound up as a triple.

"If we had lost the game by one run, I would have really been upset with myself," he said.

As it turned out, Ryan Church followed with a double that most likely would have scored Kearns anyway. And Rowand got the run back with his two-out double.

Rowand is hitting the ball well and the rest of the Phillies are starting to follow. "It's contagious," he said. "Our hitting is definitely starting to come around. We've got more confidence, and you can see it."

And then Rowand walked back to the trainer's room to begin taking care of his bumps and bruises and aches and strains.

So that he doesn't have to think about it once tonight's game starts. *