ATLANTA - It proved to be worth the wait.

Ryan Howard last played for the Phillies on May 9 in Phoenix, when he smacked a pinch-hit grand slam in a victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks. Jamie Moyer last beat the Atlanta Braves on May 23, 1987 - 20 years ago this week. And Mike Zagurski last pitched Wednesday in a double-A game in New Hampshire.

Each played a role in last night's 8-3 victory over the Braves at Turner Field, which improved the Phillies (24-24) to .500 for the fifth time in their last nine games. This afternoon, the Phillies will try once more to climb over .500 for the first time this season.

"It would be nice to get past that hurdle," Moyer said. "I think now is a key time to move beyond that, and get ourselves on a little bit of a roll and get ourselves a few games over .500 and see what kind of momentum it can create for us and go from there."

It should help to have Howard back.

Howard spent the last 15 days on the disabled list with a sore left quadriceps. He went 1 for 4 with a double, two RBIs, an intentional walk and a run scored. He hit balls hard in the first and third innings before striking out in the fifth. He tested his quad in the seventh when he scored from second on a single to right to hand the Phillies a 5-3 lead. He then hit a two-run double in the eighth to hand the Phillies a four-run lead.

"It felt great," Howard said. "To come back and hit a couple balls on the screws, but just hit them right at folks after sitting for two weeks, it was kind of easy to get down. But the positive thing was going out and having four great at-bats. And even though I struck out, I was seeing the ball the way I wanted to see it and just reading things the way I wanted to read them. That double kind of helped end the day on a good note."

Moyer (5-3) returned to form after he allowed seven runs in 31/3 innings Saturday in a 13-2 loss to Toronto. Moyer allowed five hits, three runs (two earned), and one walk in seven innings against the Braves.

The last time Moyer beat Atlanta? He pitched 41/3 innings of relief in a 7-6 victory in 16 innings at Wrigley Field. Phillies broadcaster Gary Matthews had a pinch-hit single and scored in that game.

Howard's and Moyer's efforts allowed Zagurski to make his big-league debut in the eighth inning. With a fan section of about 20 family and friends behind home plate cheering every pitch, Zagurski got Willie Harris to fly out to right, Kelly Johnson to ground out to first, and Martin Prado to bounce out to second.

Easy, right?

"[Geoff] Geary made a point to tell me before I ran out there, 'Take a minute after you get out there to step off and take a look around because it'll be your only major-league debut,' " said Zagurski, who was pitching for single-A Clearwater two weeks ago. "When I got out there, my warm-up pitches were a little wild, but then I stepped off and it kind of cleared my head and I went back to work."

Moyer, as always, kept his cool. He found himself in trouble for the first time in the sixth. The Braves had Prado on second and Johnson on third with one out when Edgar Renteria hit a ball to third baseman Greg Dobbs. Johnson stopped and turned back toward third while Prado ran to third.

Phils manager Charlie Manuel said Dobbs should have taken care of the lead runner with him so close, but Dobbs threw to first instead.

Then with Johnson suddenly running home, Howard spun and hesitated before he threw to the plate. Howard never had a chance to get Johnson, who scored to make it 3-2. But Howard's throw was wide and bounced. The ball got past Carlos Ruiz and allowed Prado to score to tie it.

"I had more time than I thought and I probably shouldn't have made the throw," Howard said.

But the tie wouldn't last long. The Phillies loaded the bases in the seventh when Dobbs singled to right off Braves starter Tim Hudson (5-3) to score Utley and Howard.

"I didn't feel anything," Howard said of his quad. "I was going all out. To some people like Mike Bourn, it might be slow motion, but I was going hard enough to try to feel something and I didn't feel anything."

Manuel said he felt Howard's presence in the lineup last night. Maybe he's what the Phillies need to finally get a winning record.

It's not as if he hasn't carried them before.

Contact staff writer Todd Zolecki

at 215-854-4874 or tzolecki@phillynews.com. Read his blog at http://go.philly.com.zozone.