WASHINGTON — Charlie Manuel thrust his index finger into the air, but he did so out of caution, not celebration. Yes, the offense set a season high in runs. Yes, Ryan Howard had his best performance of the season. Yes, the team's frustrating batting slump took a momentary reprieve, and the result was a 12-2 win over the Nationals that sent the Phillies into a four-game series in Houston with some semblance of momentum.

But...

"It's just one night only," the Phillies' manager said. "We've got to do it again tomorrow and the next day and the next day."

There was a lesson to take from last night's victory, which was highlighted by Howard's two-homer, four-RBI performance and an eight-run sixth inning that saw the Phillies jump at the throat of an inferior team in a way they hadn't all season.

The lesson, then, is what they've told us all along: When Howard is hitting bad pitches to different ZIP codes, and Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino are getting on base, and the bottom of the order is something other than a black hole, the offense is an entity to behold.

Nobody is quite sure where that entity had been the previous couple of days — Mental-health vacation? Sabbatical? Corporate retreat? — but the goal now is to keep it from running back from whence it came.

The Phillies have flashed like this before, most notably in an 11-4 win at Arizona a couple of weeks ago. The offense rapped out a season-high 18 hits that night, and the first four batters in the order combined to go 7-for-18 with five RBI.

But they hit just .212 over the final six games of the road trip, and entered last night hitting .256 on the season.

Still, there were plenty of reasons for optimism, not the least of which was the play of Howard, who turned in his first multiple-home-run game of the season and finished 3-for-5 with four RBI.

Howard's first home run, a solo shot off lefthander Matt Chico, was a monstrous shot to the second deck in right-centerfield that is believed to be the longest hit this season in the Nationals' new park.

Chico left an 0-2 slider in the middle of the plate with two outs in the fifth inning, and Howard quickly made him feel the repercussion.

"I was just able to hit it where it was pitched," he said.

Howard's second homer came in the midst of a sixth inning in which the Phillies batted around and scored a season-high eight runs. Righthander Jesus Colome replaced Chico to start the frame and actually struck out Jayson Werth to start things off. But after Pedro Feliz and Chris Coste singled, Colome walked Jamie Moyer, loading the bases and setting the stage for a big inning.

Unlike the previous three games, when they combined to go 4-for-29 with runners in scoring position, the Phillies took advantage.

Rollins and Victorino hit RBI singles, two runs scored on an error, Chase Utley doubled, and Howard hit a first-pitch fastball over the fence in center for a two-run homer.

Feliz and Coste capped things off with their second hits of the inning before Moyer finally struck out to end the frame.

The way Moyer pitched — he threw six scoreless innings and worked out of trouble in the second, third and fourth innings — it was more than enough for the victory.

Now, of course, the hope is that the Phillies can get themselves permanently right.

It took a couple of days, a source of frustration for a supposed World Series contender facing an organization that at one point during the night promoted an upcoming game with the slogan, "Come see the stars of tomorrow today."

The Phillies, of course, already have the stars, and when all of them are clicking together in unison, they are blessed with occurrences like the one that went down last night in the nation's capital.

The top of the order got on base, the middle of the order hit for power, and the bottom of the order pulled its weight. Six of the eight regulars had multiple hits. Two players on whose production the Phillies have waited all season had perhaps their best performances. Feliz went 3-for-5 with an RBI and two runs scored, while Victorino went 3-for-5 with two RBI and three runs scored.

"It was huge," Howard said. "After the first two games where we kind of got off to a slow start with hits and runs, to be able to come out and explode the way we did, hopefully we can carry it over to our next trip." *

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