Nationals 3, Marlins 2

The latest win was just a symbol of them all, really. A fly ball from a rookie that was just barely deep enough. A runner from third who is in the lineup only because of injury and slid across just ahead of the throw. And an entire Nationals team on which no one jumps out and smacks you in the face, but continues to send opposing teams back to their clubhouses, muttering to themselves, "How did we just lose to them?"

"This is not a fluke," third baseman Vinny Castilla said. "This team is here. It's real."

On the day the Nationals' first season in Washington turned two months old came another indication that two months from now, they still might be hanging around the top of the National League East. In the bottom of the 11th, Ryan Church sent a shallow fly to left, just deep enough to score Jamey Carroll from third with the winning run in a 3-2 victory over the Florida Marlins.

The win was the Nationals' fifth in sixth games, four of those five coming against the best the NL East has to offer, the Atlanta Braves and the Marlins. Thus, the Nationals climbed within a half game of both those teams, the preseason favorites.

So in the midst of discussing right-hander Livan Hernandez's nine-inning, 150-pitch effort, of talking about overcoming a similarly effective performance from Florida's Josh Beckett, a theme developed in the Nationals' clubhouse afterward. Forget the nice little story about the pesky team that moved south from Montreal and found a niche in Washington, hanging around .500 and overachieving despite placing 14 different guys on the disabled list. Rather, start talking about a team that -- when it finally gets healthy -- believes it will be contending in September.

"You can see the confidence and the swagger in this team right now," outfielder Brad Wilkerson said. "We have confidence we can beat anybody. That's a good team over there. They're probably the most talented team in the division."

Yet the Nationals beat them last night, bringing no shortage of joy to the 29,439 who braved the threat of showers and settled into rickety old RFK Stadium for a treat of a duel between Hernandez and Beckett. Hernandez was his elastic-armed self, throwing nine innings, allowing base runners all over the place -- seven hits and five walks -- but surrendering only Juan Encarnacion's two-out, two-run single in the third.

Beckett, the World Series MVP in 2003 -- six years after Hernandez won the same award for the Marlins -- was more efficient, yet no better, throwing eight innings of four-hit, two-walk ball, but giving those two runs back in the fourth on an RBI triple from Nick Johnson and a subsequent groundout from Castilla.

At times, it seemed a test of wills between the two pitchers. Beckett didn't allow a hit after the fourth. Hernandez allowed only one between the fourth and eighth. Each time Hernandez came back into the dugout between innings, Nationals Manager Frank Robinson looked to his ace, who has led the majors in innings pitched and complete games each of the past two years. Hernandez shook his head. No thank you, sir. I'll stay in.

"You feel good, you go for it," Hernandez said.

Which kind of encapsulates how the Nationals feel late in these tense ballgames. They feel good, they go for it, and -- more often than not lately -- they win. They have now trailed in 19 of their 29 victories this season. "We don't quit," Church said.

With the division by far the tightest in baseball -- the difference between first and last entering last night was all of 21/2 games -- that attitude could mean something. The entire division is within two games of each other, so every little edge is going to matter.

"This is a division where you've got every team in it," Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said. "Records don't matter. The only thing that matters is games behind."

Though the Nationals have won just two of six games with the Marlins, Bowden believes the team -- even with second baseman Jose Vidro and nine other players on the disabled list -- is in position to contend for the rest of the season.

"We're right in position," he said. "We are where we are. Atlanta came to our house and we won three of four. We went to Atlanta and won two of three. . . . It's June. It ain't April."

The Nationals seem to realize that, too. "It's not like the season is two, three weeks old," Castilla said. "We've been doing this for two months."

So they did it again last night. After Hernandez finally came out after nine, Chad Cordero pitched a perfect 10th and Luis Ayala got out of a jam in the 11th. That left it to the Marlins bullpen, which has been much shakier than that of the Nationals.

Nate Bump started the 11th, but he walked Carroll -- who is now slumping as Vidro's replacement -- to start the inning. When Jose Guillen hit a chopper back to the mound, Bump threw errantly to second, a costly mistake that left runners on first and second. Matt Perisho came in and walked Johnson, and after Castilla popped out, Church hit his fly ball.

"I was praying as I went down the line," Church said.

Miguel Cabrera caught it, and Carroll took off, forcing the issue. Cabrera's throw was wide of the plate, and Carroll slid home, clapped his hands, the Nationals' 12th one-run win.

It's just two months in, but they are two months that now seem to point to greater things.

"What it does, it builds character," Robinson said. "It makes the team stronger and have more confidence in themselves, and they start to believe. When you're having success, and you start to believe, that's a tough combination to beat."

Jamey Carroll, left, is met at the plate by Brian Schneider and Cristian Guzman after tagging up and scoring the winning run in the 11th.Washington right fielder Jose Guillen chugs around third base and scores on Nick Johnson's triple in the fourth inning to cut the Nationals' deficit to 2-1.