PHILADELPHIA -- The Nationals inched a step closer to winning the National League East title as they defeated Phillies, 7-3, at Citizens Bank Park on Thursday night.
The magic number to win the East is three with six games to go. The Braves defeated the Marlins, 6-2, keeping Atlanta four games behind Washington.
The Nationals were able to win the game thanks to two home runs by Michael Morse, who drove in four runs. But it was Bryce Harper who drove in the go-ahead run in the fifth inning. With runners on first and second, Harper singled to left field off Tyler Cloyd to drive in Danny Espinosa.
In the next inning, with nobody out, Morse hit a two-run homer, his second of the night, to give Washington a three-run lead. The ball landed in the Nationals' bullpen in right-center field, an estimated 451 feet from home plate. Left-hander Tom Gorzelanny caught the ball with his cap.
"It felt good. I got a good pitch to hit. I stayed up the middle and it felt real good coming off the bat," Morse said.
So much for being hampered by left wrist and right thumb problems. For a time, the injuries zapped his power, but manager Davey Johnson saw a different Morse at the plate during batting practice two days ago.
"He started feeling real good and frisky, and started getting the head [of the bat] out. He has been pulling the ball more, which tells me he is healthy," Johnson said. "That ball he hit to right-center was just crushed."
Morse said the wrist and thumb feel almost normal again.
"I don't have to think about it," Morse said. "I guess it's never too late to get going. I feel good. It has been a tough year for me, but this team has been doing so great that everybody has been picking up everybody the whole year. I guess that's what good teams do."
Washington added to its scoring in the seventh, when Eury Perez scored on a wild pitch by reliever Jeremy Horst.
Left-hander Gio Gonzalez started for the Nationals, and early on it looked like he was going to have one of his worst outings of the year. In the first inning, he threw 36 pitches and allowed three runs, the biggest blow coming when Darin Ruf roped a three-run double to give Philadelphia a 3-1 lead. After two innings, Gonzalez threw 55 pitches.
"I couldn't find the strike zone," Gonzalez said. "But that's what a good team does. They help a pitcher finds his way back. I think everyone had a part in saying something and getting me where I needed to be.
"I was little out of whack, couldn't find the strike zone. As soon as the second inning came along, some of the guys were asking me, 'What are you doing? Go figure it out. Just attack that strike zone,'" Gonzalez said. "That's exactly what you need, words of encouragement. They are looking at you to go out and get a big win. It speaks a lot for them to believe in you like that."
But Gonzalez settled down and ended up pitching six innings and allowing just the three runs on six hits to win his Major League-leading 21st game of the season. The 21 wins also set an Expos/Nationals single-season record.
"Well, Gio just about gave me a heart attack after two innings. I'm thinking, 'My goodness, he is going to throw 100 pitches after three [innings]," Johnson said. "In his case, I think he was under-amped. [Pitching coach Steve McCatty] told me that Gio threw 13 pitches and he is ready to go in the 'pen. He made up for it in the first two innings. So I figured he had a lot more left in the tank."
After the second inning ended, Gonzalez told Johnson to stick with him.
"Skip, don't worry about it. I got it. Stay with me, stay with me," Gonzalez said told Johnson.
Johnson did stick with Gonzalez, who went on to pitch four shutout innings on three hits.
"It's the kind of year he has had. He has been very consistent. He pitched one heck of a ballgame," Johnson said.
By the fifth inning, the Nationals tied the score at 3 against Cloyd. Morse's second-inning solo homer made it a one-run game, and it was Morse who tied the score at 3 two innings later when he grounded out to shortstop Jimmy Rollins, scoring Ryan Zimmerman -- who led off the inning with a double.
Another win and another step closer toward the division title for the Nationals, who remind Phillies manager Charlie Manuel of the Philadelphia teams of 2007 and '08, the latter the World Series champs.
"They're similar to us. They've got some speed," Manuel said. "I liked our balance better than theirs at one time. But they've got a good lineup. They've got a good team. They can beat you. The shortstop [Ian Desmond] really put up a good season this year. ... The guy in left field [Morse] didn't play a lot, but he looks pretty good when he's playing. [Jayson] Werth is a good player. And [Bryce] Harper is going to be something really special."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.