Rookie outfielder hits third home run in two nights to back veteran righty

There remained some trepidation in the Nationals' clubhouse before Thursday's game against the St. Louis Cardinals.

The team had snapped an ugly five-game losing streak by salvaging a win at Miami the day before. But no one was going to feel comfortable until the Nationals had put together a winning streak again. They did just that by bludgeoning the Cardinals 8-1 at Nationals Park.

Bryce Harper hit a two-run homer in the first inning and gave starting pitcher Edwin Jackson all the support he would need. Jackson threw a season-high 123 pitches in eight innings and allowed one unearned run thanks to a Ryan Zimmerman throwing error.

It was a nice start to a key four-game series for Washington (79-51), which increased its National League East lead over second-place Atlanta (74-57) to 5? games. The Nats are also now 8? games clear of the Cardinals (71-60), who hold the second and final wild-card spot in the National League. Nervous? On a club that's rebounded from adversity all season there apparently was no need to be.

"I don't know why it should. You're going to go through these things in a 162-game season," outfielder Jayson Werth said. "It's just one of those things. It happens. You've got to come back every night ready to play and ready to beat the other team. I don't think any of us were panicking or upset about anything."

Harper ripped an 0-2 fastball over the wall in right field to put Washington ahead 2-0. The ball screamed over the fence on a line and never appeared to get higher than eight or nine feet off the ground. It slammed into the home bullpen for Harper's third home run in six at-bats. He hit two against Miami on Wednesday. Werth had drawn a leadoff walk.

"I've been feeling good for the past couple weeks. Just trying to stay within myself and play the game that I've been playing," Harper said. "It's good that we're on a streak again and getting going. And it's good to get that first win out of the way of this whole series."

Meanwhile, Jackson struck out seven of the first 12 batters he faced through three innings and 10 overall. And six of those strikeouts came on a wicked slider that was strong from the start. Jackson's strikeouts gave Washington's pitching staff 1,070 for the season. That breaks the team record since it moved to the District from Montreal in 2005.

"It's just a matter of throwing strikes, come out and get ahead and pitch to contact," said Jackson, who beat the team he won the World Series with last fall. "I really don't pitch to strikeouts. I really don't ever know how many strikeouts I have until someone tells me after the game. I just pitch and try to go as deep as I can in the game."

St. Louis starter Jamie Garcia had no such luck. In the third he gave up a leadoff single to Werth, then held his breath as a monster fly ball to dead center by Harper was caught up against the wall 401 feet away by teammate John Jay. But Zimmerman reached on an infield single and Michael Morse walked to load the bases with one out. A sacrifice fly by Adam LaRoche made it 3-0.

In the fifth inning Werth continued his scorching August when he lined a home run off the digital scoreboard above the St. Louis bullpen in left. That put Washington ahead 4-0. In the sixth the Nats loaded the bases on three consecutive singles. A fielder's choice grounder by Werth drove in one run, and Harper's RBI hit pushed across another to put the game out of reach at 6-0. Jesus Flores drove in two more in the seventh with a base hit to left.

The Cardinals scored their lone run on Zimmerman's throwing error in the eighth inning, but otherwise Jackson dominated his former club.

"[Jackson] didn't have to know anybody with the stuff he was featuring," Washington manager Davey Johnson said. "He was throwing hard. Good breaking ball. They didn't hit many balls hard."