WASHINGTON -- Right-hander Alec Asher, making his first start of the season for the Phillies, proved to be too much for the Nationals as Philadelphia won the series opener, 4-1, at Nationals Park on Thursday night in Asher's first big league win.
Washington's magic number remains at 15 to win the National League East. The second-place Mets had the day off on Thursday. The Phillies also snapped a nine-game losing streak against the Nationals.
Asher's counterpart, A.J. Cole, pitched five innings and allowed four runs on five hits. All four runs were scored in the third inning, on homers by Peter Bourjos and Ryan Howard.
"Cole wasn't bad at all," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "It was the three-run homer [from Howard] that did him and us in. Cole was pretty good, actually. The one homer [by Bourjos] hit the foul pole. The other one scraped the wall."
Said Cole: "Howard hit a good pitch. At the same time, if I'm going to throw that changeup, I [should] throw it in the ground."
Asher, who pitched six shutout innings, retired six of the first seven hitters he faced. The only time the Nationals had runners in scoring position against the right-hander was in the third inning. Washington had runners on first and second with two outs, but Daniel Murphy flied out to left field to end the threat.
"He showed makeup," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said about Asher. "Last year he looked like he was a little nervous most of the time and got rocked around. It was good to see him confident."
Washington would finally put a run on a board in the eighth inning off reliever Hector Neris. With the bases loaded, Murphy hit a sacrifice fly to left fielder Aaron Altherr, scoring Stephen Drew.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Asher impresses: Asher returned from an 80-game suspension earlier this week after testing positive for oral turinabol, dazzling in his season debut. He allowed just two hits and one walk in six scoreless innings. Asher is the first of three pitchers the Phillies acquired in July 2015 in the Cole Hamels trade who will face the Nationals this weekend. Jake Thompson starts Friday night and Jerad Eickhoff starts Saturday night.
"I just said that I was going to go out there and have fun," Asher said. "I felt like I wasn't myself at the end of last year and let the moment get to me. I was going to go back to being me. It definitely worked and I'm looking to build on it."
One bad inning for Cole: Take away the third inning, in which he allowed two home runs, Cole was strong. He struck out eight batters and walked none. Baker has been impressed by what he saw from Cole since he rejoined the team in late August.
"Cole throws strikes, he uses his secondary pitches well," the skipper said. "Tonight, I think Howard hit an offspeed pitch out of the park. From where we were sitting, it wasn't that bad a pitch. But Howard has a lot of home runs. He sits on pitches. I could tell by the way he was set up, I said to myself, 'Please don't throw him a strike with anything offspeed.' ... I could tell Howard was looking for it."
Big Piece hammers 21st: Howard's three-run home run to center field handed the Phillies a 4-0 lead. It was the 378th homer of Howard's career, which ties him with Matt Williams for 72nd place on the all-time home run list. Next up are Hall of Famers Tony Perez and Orlando Cepeda, who each hit 379 homers.
"Howie came up with that big three-run home run," Mackanin said. "That's [about] all we had offensively, but it was obviously enough."
"Someone asked me last year, a legitimate question after he was getting rocked around so much, 'Do you think it was a good idea to call him up?' And I said, 'Yes it is, because when he goes back down, he's going to understand what he's up against and let's see what kind of makeup he's got, if he's going to fight and battle back.' And sure enough, he went out there tonight and looked very confident. He felt like he was in control. He got away with a few line drives here and there, but nevertheless he threw strikes and only gave up two hits. I'm really proud of him for that." -- Mackanin, on Asher.
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With his first-inning double, Murphy became the first Nationals second baseman to collect 40 doubles in a season. Former Nationals second baseman Jose Vidro has the franchise's single-season mark for doubles by a second baseman, hitting 51 as a member of the Expos in 2000.
WHAT'S NEXT Phillies: Thompson hopes to keep the good times rolling on Friday at 7:05 p.m. ET at Nationals Park. He went 1-3 with a 9.78 ERA in his first four starts, unable to pitch past the fifth inning in any of those starts. But Thompson is 0-2 with a 1.93 ERA in his last two starts, pitching seven innings in both.
Nationals: The Nationals play the second game of four-game series against the Phillies on Friday at 7:05 p.m. ET. Tanner Roark has dominated the Phillies this season, with a 0.64 ERA in four starts. He threw seven scoreless innings against Philadelphia on Aug. 29, marking the eighth time this season he has lasted at least that many innings without giving up a run.