Nationals 4, Athletics 3

Had Jose Vidro been on the field, he would have caught the ball, and the game would have been over. Livan Hernandez could have watched from the clubhouse and seen his eighth straight victory closed out in fine fashion. The Washington Nationals could have cracked their postgame beers a few minutes earlier, and celebrated yet another night that ended with them squarely atop the National League East.

But Vidro, the Nationals' all-star second baseman, was out of the lineup for the 32nd straight time. So it was left to Washington's backups -- not to mention the backups to the backups -- to somehow secure a 4-3 victory over the Oakland Athletics last night before 26,672 at RFK Stadium.

In an instant, all the good work done by Hernandez -- who was spectacular yet again -- could have evaporated in the ninth. Closer Chad Cordero, handed a two-run lead, again taunted his opponent, allowing two hits, then daring the A's to win. With two outs and runners on first and second, Jason Kendall hit a grounder to third baseman Vinny Castilla, who went the short route to second, trying for the force play that would have ended the game, wrapping up the Nationals' seventh straight win.

Since Vidro went down with a severe left ankle sprain and tendon damage on May 4, Jamey Carroll has filled in capably at second base, especially on defense. But Carroll himself rested a sprained ankle last night. So when Castilla made the throw -- "It was a little high," Castilla admitted -- it instead found Carlos Baerga on the receiving end, and Baerga, whose nimblest days have long since passed by, couldn't catch it.

The error allowed one run to score, leaving the tying run on third and the lead run on second. Pitching coach Randy St. Claire and catcher Brian Schneider joined Cordero on the mound. He is 23. He has been in the big leagues less than two years. He was in the process of blowing a game -- or at least having it blown behind him -- and interrupting what is becoming a remarkable stretch of baseball. And how did he respond?

"He was like nobody was on and we're leading by 20 runs out there," Castilla said. "He's just so cold-blooded."

So, in exactly that fashion, Cordero got Bobby Crosby to hit a hard grounder to shortstop, the final out of the Nationals' 10th win in 11 games, keeping their lead over the second-place Philadelphia Phillies at 11/2 games, and allowing the focus to remain on Hernandez and first baseman Nick Johnson, whose three-run double keyed a four-run third inning.

The haunting image, though, could easily have been that of Baerga missing the ball. It served as a reminder that Vidro, at some point, is badly needed. Yesterday afternoon, he returned and wore a protective boot around RFK Stadium, but said he will have that removed today. Team doctors have said they're hoping Vidro will be back by the all-star break. Vidro said he would like to be ready June 24, when the team returns from a nine-game road trip that begins Monday.

"I'm not going to push it if it still hurts," Vidro said. "But if it's okay, when the team comes back [from the trip], if not a week after that. It's been getting a lot of progress lately. I still got a little bit of a problem when I turn to the sides, but it's less pain than it was."

As anxious as he is to play -- "It's frustrating," he said -- Vidro insisted that he won't rush to get back in the lineup, even if the team remains in the race in the NL East.

"Right now, I'm concerned about getting healthy," Vidro said. "When I come back, I know the team's going to be there. This team's pretty good."

With Hernandez (9-2) on the mound, the team has a chance to be better than pretty good. Six days after throwing 150 pitches against Florida, the lumpy right-hander returned in stifling humidity to throw 127 more over eight innings, the fourth time this year he has thrown at least that many. No other major leaguer has done it twice.

"And he's doing it," St. Claire said, "when he's not at his best."

Hernandez is still bothered slightly by a balky right knee, which hinders his ability to push off. Yet St. Claire believes he adjusts to circumstances as well as any other pitcher.

"The guy is just phenomenal," St. Claire said. "He doesn't have that drive, and he's throwing 83-84 [mph], probably four or five miles different than what he's normally at. And he's still able to locate, keep guys off of what he's doing. He is just totally, really fun to watch."

Right now, so are the Nationals. They drop the ball, and someone else picks it up.

"I don't get nervous," Hernandez said. "If something happens, it's going to happen. And right now, everything's happening for us."

Chad Cordero (32) receives recognition for more good work -- his 17th save in 19 opportunities. Nick Johnson had a three-double for the Nationals.Nationals starter Livan Hernandez delivers one of his 127 pitches over eight innings. He gave up two runs on eight hits while improving his record to 9-2.