By JEFF BARTL
(AP) -- Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson has done plenty of talking behind closed doors the past few days, including a heated argument with general manager Mike Rizzo.
He used more calming words that seemed to inspire his first-place club before its last contest.
Fresh off ending a five-game losing streak, Washington hosts the opener of a four-game series when it faces fellow postseason hopeful St. Louis for the first time in 2012 on Thursday night.
Johnson and Rizzo each downplayed their run-in after a loss to Philadelphia on Sunday, and the veteran manager held a team meeting prior to Wednesday's contest with Miami that he described as "upbeat."
Washington's offense proceeded to snap out of its funk, scoring one more run that it had during its entire skid in an 8-4 victory that increased its NL East lead to five games over Atlanta.
Bryce Harper - who was ejected in the ninth inning for slamming his helmet after grounding into a double play - had his first multi-homer game with a two-run blast in the fourth and a solo shot in the fifth.
"We're still the team in first place," Harper said. "Everybody is getting ahead of everything and saying we're struggling. We went through a skid. That happens. Everybody is trying to catch us. It's harder for them."
Washington (78-51) has won six of the last eight matchups with St. Louis, which had its lead for the NL's second wild-card spot trimmed to one game with Wednesday's 5-0 loss to Pittsburgh.
Tony Cruz had two hits filling in for catcher Yadier Molina, who was recovering from Tuesday's collision at home plate. Molina is expected to be ready for Thursday's opener.
The Cardinals (71-59) were shut out in the final two games in Pittsburgh after winning six of their previous seven contests.
"We've seen quite a bit of this year, it's been a lot of feast or famine," manager Mike Matheny said. "It's hard to understand it because we certainly have the ability to put something up there every night."
St. Louis will look to get its offense back on track against former Cardinal Edwin Jackson, who signed a one-year deal with Washington in the offseason.
Jackson (7-9, 3.72 ERA) has lost his last two starts, though he didn't pitch badly in either. He gave up two runs and struck out a season-high 11 in seven innings of a 2-0 loss to the Mets on Aug. 18, then allowed three runs and punched out eight in six frames of Friday's 4-2 loss at Philadelphia.
Jackson will be facing the Cardinals for the first time since helping them win the World Series after being acquired from the White Sox in July 2011. He went 5-2 with a 3.58 ERA in 12 regular-season starts and one relief appearance, followed by making four playoff starts.
Jackson is 0-2 with a 3.54 ERA in four starts and a relief outing against his former team, which counters with Jaime Garcia.
Garcia (3-5, 4.15) shined in his first start since returning from a shoulder injury, giving up two unearned runs in eight innings against Pittsburgh on Aug. 19. His next outing didn't go as well, as he allowed four runs in six innings of Saturday's 8-2 loss to Cincinnati.
The left-hander is 2-0 with a 1.65 ERA in three career starts against the Nationals.
Updated August 30, 2012