AP Sports Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The St. Louis Cardinals' very first batter, Matt Carpenter, got it started against Stephen Strasburg by stretching a single into a double when Bryce Harper's throw to second base was bobbled and fell to the dirt.
One out later, Matt Holliday singled. Carlos Beltran walked. Yadier Molina delivered a two-run single. And then a throwing error on Daniel Descalso's grounder padded the score.
Just like that, 23 pitches in, the Cardinals built a three-run lead against Strasburg's Washington Nationals. And that, pretty much, was enough. On the strength of that half-inning, the Cardinals beat the Nationals 4-2 Wednesday to complete a sweep and give Washington's All-Star ace the only four-start losing streak of his young career.
"It was good to get on Strasburg early," Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma said. "That's what we were trying to do from the get-go."
Jaime Garcia (2-1) allowed a run on Harper's sixth-inning groundout, but otherwise added to the offensive struggles of the Nationals, who have lost six consecutive home games and nine of their last 12 overall to fall to 10-11.
With his team averaging 2.9 runs over its past dozen games, Washington manager Davey Johnson said he would insert bench player Steve Lombardozzi in the lineup Thursday against Cincinnati and make other changes to the batting order.
"We're just not doing the things we're capable of doing right now," Johnson said. "It'll change, but I'm going to have to jumble things up a little bit. Try to light a fire."
The Nationals produced only four runs in this three-game set, a rematch of the 2012 NL division series won by St. Louis.
"We feel pretty comfortable against them," Kozma said.
Needing to be nearly perfect given Washington's lack of offense, Strasburg (1-4) improved considerably after that 12-minute first inning. Getting ahead in the count, he threw 110 pitches over seven innings, giving up no other runs and a total of five hits, along with seven strikeouts.
"I was trying to throw the perfect pitch. I tell myself going into the game, 'Don't do that.' And I go out there and I do it," said Strasburg, who hasn't won since opening day against Miami. "So I was really happy I was able to make the adjustment, get the feeling back. My velocity came back up, I was throwing a lot more strikes, and they weren't taking as good swings."
That initial inning, though, was precisely the sort of "scratch and claw" offense that Cardinals manager Mike Matheny spoke about before the game.
"People hate our 'small ball' theory," Matheny said, "but when we're not banging balls into the stands every single night, we've got to do other things, whether people like it or not."
His club used that style to add an insurance run in the eighth off Drew Storen -- who blew a ninth-inning lead against St. Louis in Game 5 in October -- on Holliday's chopped single that didn't leave the infield.
"The thing that the Cardinals did is, they've got their boppers in the middle, but then they've got guys like Descalso and (Shane) Robinson and Kozma," Strasburg said. "They grind you out. They're not going to give in. They're not just going to strike out."
The Nationals, meanwhile, went 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position. Trying to generate something for Washington's slumbering offense, Ian Desmond bunted for a base hit with one out in the second, then stole second and advanced to third on a flyout to the warning track. But rookie third baseman Anthony Rendon struck out to end the inning.
Strasburg actually was the one who got Washington going at the plate, grounding a single up the middle to lead off the sixth. Denard Span followed with a single, and Jayson Werth's groundout moved the runners up for Harper. He grounded out to second, but at least that got Strasburg home to make it 3-1.
A walk to Tyler Moore ended Garcia's day after one run and four hits in 5 2-3 innings. Righty Joe Kelly entered to face Desmond, who struck out swinging, then flung his bat and helmet.
In the seventh, a pair of singles put runners at the corners with one out, but Kelly got out of that jam when pinch-hitter Lombardozzi struck out and Jhonatan Solano, taking off from first on a hit-and-run, was thrown out at second by catcher Molina.
Werth's fourth homer, off Trevor Rosenthal in the eighth, gave Washington its second run. But that was too little to stop the Nationals from dropping below .500 for the first time since finishing the 2011 season 80-81.