- Associated Press - Thursday, September 8, 2016

Alec Asher’s first tour with the Philadelphia Phillies went very badly.

This time around he’s off to a great start.

Ryan Howard hit a three-run homer, Asher pitched six innings of two-hit ball coming off a suspension, and the Phillies defeated the Washington Nationals 4-1 on Thursday night.

Asher, acquired from the Rangers in the trade for Cole Hamels, ended last season in the Phillies’ starting rotation and went 0-6 with a 9.31 ERA in seven starts.

“It’s a testament to his makeup,” manager Pete Mackanin said of Asher’s improvement. “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.”

The right-hander pitched to contact, walking one batter without a strikeout, and throwing 75 pitches in earning his first major league victory.

“I felt like I wasn’t myself at the end of last year and I kind of let the moment get to me,” Asher said. “I just said I’m going to go out there and have fun. I’m going to pitch to my strengths.”

Asher (1-0) was suspended for 80 games while on the disabled list with Triple-A Lehigh Valley in June after a positive drug test. He made four minor league appearances beginning in late August and his suspension ended Sept. 4.

“Everything’s in the past now,” Asher said. “It’s unfortunate what happened. There’s nothing I can do but come up here and pitch now. Happy to be back and looking to stay.”

Peter Bourjos homered for the Phillies, who snapped a nine-game losing streak against the Nationals.

Trailing 4-0, Washington loaded bases with one out in the eighth inning. Daniel Murphy hit a sacrifice fly to the warning track and Bryce Harper struck out.

Jeanmar Gomez pitched the ninth for his 36th save.

The Nationals received hopeful news regarding Stephen Strasburg, who left his start in the third inning Wednesday night after feeling a pinch in the back of his elbow.

Strasburg has a strained flexor mass in his elbow and the Nationals don’t know when he will pitch again, but manager Dusty Baker and director of athletic training Paul Lessard voiced optimism after an MRI revealed no ligament damage.

“Normally (these injuries) come around very well with treatment and strengthening programs,” Lessard said of Strasburg’s elbow. “It’s not a season-ending injury, but we still need to take time (so) that he’s nice and strong because of his past.”

A.J. Cole (1-2), one of the pitchers the Nationals may rely on in Strasburg’s absence, allowed four runs and five hits in five innings. He struck out eight batters without a walk.

“I’ve always believed in myself as being a big league pitcher,” Cole said, “and I’ve got to be able to show that, and that’s what I’m doing right now.”

Bourjos led off the third with a blast off the left field foul pole and, with two outs, Howard lifted a fly ball that carried over the fence in center. It was his 21st homer and career No. 378, tying him with former Nationals manager Matt Williams for 72nd on the all-time list.

“He just made a couple of pitches that he wished he had back tonight,” Baker said of Cole. “He seems kind of unfazed by the challenges of the big leagues.”

Asher joins Jerad Eickhoff and Jake Thompson — who were also part of the Hamels trade — in the starting rotation.

“It’s kind of cool to see … guys we got in the trade all in the rotation,” Mackanin said. “It’s going to be fun to watch, I hope.”

Murphy picked up his 40th double of the season, matching his career high. He’s the first second baseman in Nationals history (2005-present) to post a 40-double season.

Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco (sore right thumb) was out of the lineup for the second straight game.

“I’m not going to play him today just because it’s a little sore,” Mackanin said. “There’s a little bruising there.”

Baker said righty Joe Ross (right shoulder inflammation) is “progressing well” and the team is trying to determine where he’ll pitch next with few minor league games remaining.

Thompson (1-5, 6.48) makes his seventh career start and second against the Nationals on Friday. The right-hander allowed two runs and seven hits in seven innings of a 4-0 loss to Washington on Aug. 29.

Nationals righty Tanner Roark (14-8, 2.89) looks to continue his recent mastery of the Phillies. He’s 3-0 with a 0.64 ERA versus Philadelphia this season. His career mark against them is 5-5 with a 3.81 ERA in 11 games, including nine starts.

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