Nationals 8, Braves 6

When the Washington Nationals reported to their dugout in the middle of the eighth inning last night, they left so much back out on the field. Two crucial errors, the ball knocking around RFK Stadium. Men picked off base that squelched two opportunities, double play balls that squashed two others. When they jogged in, a one-run lead against the Atlanta Braves had turned into a three-run deficit, and there was very little reason to puff out their chests.

Yet tearing in from right field came Jose Guillen, ready to grip the bat and poke his teammates with it at the same time.

"Let's go," teammate Carlos Baerga recalled Guillen yelling. "Let's show these people we can come back."

So they did. On what could have been one of their most disheartening, ugly nights, the Nationals took Guillen's lead and rallied for five runs in the bottom of the eighth, storming back to beat Atlanta reliever Dan Kolb and the rest of the Braves, 8-6, before 29,225 stunned-but-happy fans, many of whom rocked the left field seats at RFK like they hadn't been rocked in perhaps a month.

On paper, the offensive hero was catcher Gary Bennett, who not only hit his first home run of the year but -- more importantly -- ripped a fastball from Kolb into right-center field in the eighth, the bases-loaded double that capped the rally, turning the deficit into a lead.

"It seems like it's someone different for us all the time," said Bennett, who tied a career high with five RBI. "That's what keeps us rolling."

But there are other, more subtle things that keep this team rolling as well, and an attitude like Guillen's is foremost among them. The comeback marked the sixth time this year the Nationals have won in their last at-bat. And just when they seemed certain to fall into a tie for last in the National League East, they scrapped back, pulling within 11/2 games of the co-leading Braves and Florida Marlins, who arrive at RFK tonight to begin a three-game series.

The Nationals find themselves in this position because of players like Guillen, who didn't have his best night offensively, but came to the dugout in the eighth ready to make sure things changed.

"He was just saying, 'Let's play baseball,' " second baseman Jamey Carroll said. "He was yelling. I could hear him, even before I got to the dugout. I've said it before, but it's true: That guy fires me up."

At the time, the Nationals badly needed to be fired up. Their collapse, to that point, looked disastrous. Reliever Gary Majewski, who entered the game in the eighth holding a 3-2 lead and having thrown 16 consecutive scoreless innings, finally broke down. The Braves tied the game on a single, a walk and a sacrifice fly.

But then, the major problems. First baseman Nick Johnson, the Nationals' best hitter for the past month and a fabulous defensive player, left the game before the eighth with chest pains. He was diagnosed with reflux -- teammates said he was short of breath on the bench -- and was to undergo further tests late last night.

That left Baerga at first base, and when shortstop Cristian Guzman ranged to his left to corral a ball hit by Brian Jordan, he threw toward Baerga for what -- had Johnson been in the game -- likely would have been the final out of the inning.

But Baerga couldn't pick the ball out of the dirt. "I should have had it," he said. That set up the big inning, keyed by Johnny Estrada's two-run single, one that scored three runs after center fielder Brad Wilkerson made an errant throw. When Hector Carrasco mercifully recorded the final out of the eighth, the Nationals had every right to be down. A night earlier, they blew a two-run lead in the eighth, leading to a 5-4 loss.

"But they said, 'This is not going to happen,' " Manager Frank Robinson said. "They're not going to win this game."

There was some discussion, upon their arrival back in the dugout, of the fact that Kolb was taking the mound for the Braves. "We know he's struggling," Carroll said. Not only has he lost his job as Atlanta's closer, but the Nationals rallied from a 3-1 deficit by scoring three runs off Kolb in the ninth inning back on April 12 -- a victory that sparked a five-game winning streak.

Kolb began the eighth by walking Wilkerson. After Carroll hit into a forceout, Guillen delivered a single. And almost as proof that what Bennett said was true -- that it seems to be somebody different every night -- Baerga atoned for his inability to scoop up Guzman's throw by ripping an RBI single, closing the gap to 6-4.

"I don't have any answers right now," Kolb said after the game.

Bennett did. After signing with the Nationals as a free agent in the offseason, he has given Robinson a capable backup to starter Brian Schneider. Robinson showed his confidence in Bennett when right-hander Kevin Gryboski relieved Kolb, intentionally walked Marlon Byrd, and Robinson left the right-handed hitting Bennett in with the game on the line anyway.

Gryboski fell behind 2-0, and Bennett took a strike. Bennett sent the next pitch -- a fastball on the outside part of the plate -- into the gap in right-center. Three runs scored. RFK rocked.

"It was a tremendous psychological win -- if there is such a thing," Robinson said.

If there is psychology involved in sitting in second place rather than last -- even in June -- then, indeed, there is such a thing as a tremendous psychological win. Bennett provided it with his bat. Guillen provided it with his vocal chords. And the Nationals headed into the series against the Marlins with momentum that, only minutes before, they seemed unlikely to have.

Catcher Gary Bennett strokes a 2-run homer in the 2nd inning against the Braves, his 1st of the year. With the Nats down a run in the 8th, he hit a bases-loaded double for 5 RBI on the night.Nationals right fielder Jose Guillen climbs the rear bumper to snag a blast from the Braves' Chipper Jones for the second out in the 9th inning.