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WSH@PHI: Gonzalez fans seven over six innings of work

Although the Cardinals didn't meet the Nationals in a regular-season game until Thursday, Washington's success hasn't been a mystery to St. Louis manager Mike Matheny, thanks to several Grapefruit League matchups this spring.

Thursday's 8-1 Nats win in the opener of a four-game set at Nationals Park marked the first of seven contests the teams will play before the end of the regular season. Following Edwin Jackson's strong outing, National League East-leading Washington will start Gio Gonzalez on Friday, then continue with Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg to close the weekend.

"Look at the four we're going to be seeing this series. They're very impressive," Matheny said before Thursday's game. "And they have a solid bullpen and no holes in the offense. Really, it's everything you could ask for. We saw it all coming together when we saw them in Spring Training that they would be a serious team to be reckoned with. And they've produced."

The Nationals, now 5 1/2 games ahead of the Braves in the NL East, have recovered from scoring six runs over a five-game losing streak by plating eight apiece in back-to-back wins.

The Cardinals have dropped to 3-4 on a crucial 10-game trip through Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Washington. St. Louis scored its first run in three games in Thursday's eighth inning, and had its lead for the NL's second Wild Card berth cut to a half-game.

The good news for the Cardinals is that ace Adam Wainwright (13-10, 3.63 ERA) will take the mound on Friday, looking to close out a dominant month. Thus far in August, Wainwright is 5-0 with a 1.47 ERA and a 33-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, while holding opponents to a .203 batting average.

Eight consecutive starts with two earned runs or fewer have dropped Wainwright's ERA from 4.62.

Gonzalez (16-8, 3.28) has pitched in 121 career games, but none against the Cardinals.

He also has been strong this month, with a 31-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. On Saturday, he held the Phillies to three runs on five hits in six innings, with seven punchouts.

Cardinals: Molina gets green light for return
Yadier Molina was back in the lineup at catcher on Thursday, two days after he sustained what could have been a serious injury during a home-plate collision. The hit from Pittsburgh's Josh Harrison led Matheny to believe Molina would miss more than one game, but the Cardinals medical staff determined there was no concussion and gave the go-ahead.

"The conversation we had is that if he passes the test and the doctors say he's OK, I'm not going to stop you," said Matheny, a former catcher whose own career was derailed by concussions. "I'm going to be extra cautious because I know more about this than any one person should know. I'm not going to compare you to me, but we're going to be real cautious here."

Molina went 0-for-2 with a walk in his return, before exiting in a seventh-inning double switch.

• Shortstop Rafael Furcal left Thursday's game in the seventh inning with a right elbow strain.

Nationals: Johnson can turn to pair of closers
Tyler Clippard is the Nationals' official closer, having converted 28 of his 32 save opportunities with a 2.73 ERA this season.

But manager Davey Johnson hasn't forgotten about Drew Storen, the man Clippard supplanted due to an elbow injury. Since coming off the disabled list in mid-July, Storen has a 3.60 ERA and 18 scoreless appearances in 20 chances. Johnson still considers him a closer, too.

"It's hard to get off 'Clip.' He is almost perfect," Johnson said. "But I don't have to abuse 'Clip' at this point. I like where Storen has been at the last two or three times out. So I think he is all the way back obviously."

• Rookie outfielder Bryce Harper has homered three times in the past two games and six times since Aug. 4. He homered five times in 57 games from May 28 to Aug. 3.

Worth noting
• The only Cardinals player to have faced Gonzalez is Carlos Beltran, who went 0-for-3 against the former A's lefty last season.

• The Nationals set a new team record for strikeouts in a season on Thursday, with 31 games left on the schedule.

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