Nationals 8, Rangers 2

Maybe they forgot what this was like, though it had only been since Wednesday. When the ball settled into Nick Johnson's mitt, completing a double play, the Washington Nationals should have celebrated. It was, after all, the final out of an 8-2 victory that allowed them to dodge a sweep, to sit back, relax and enjoy their flight out of town.

But the Nationals' reaction showed how accustomed they have become to their unlikely situation. The win came after two straight losses to the Rangers in which they were barely competitive, yet Johnson and his teammates merely wandered around the field. Finally, they gathered at midfield, shook hands, headed for the clubhouse, then for the airport. That was the attitude: Everyone else seems to be waiting for them to end this first-place stint, but they simply don't seem to care. In fact, they're getting pretty comfortable casting aside their downtrodden ways of years past.

"You look at the standings today," center fielder Brad Wilkerson said about glancing at the morning paper prior to the game, "and we're still a game-and-a-half up [despite] a two-game losing streak. That's a much more positive thing. It's easier to come out and try to win a baseball game."

That they did Sunday at Ameriquest Field, taking what Manager Frank Robinson called "our kind of ballgame." Translation: Solid pitching from a few guys the rest of the league would look at and ask, "Who?" combined with timely hits and mistake-free defense. After a weekend in which they looked flimsy and vulnerable, the Nationals remained in the lead of the National League East, going up by 21/2 games over the Philadelphia Phillies.

"I don't worry about that kind of stuff," Robinson said.

No, but the rest of their division rivals do. The Nationals climbed into first place two weeks ago Sunday in the middle of a 12-1 homestand that seemed to announce their presence to the rest of baseball. Through the first two series of this nine-game road trip that will conclude with three games in Pittsburgh, they have admirably treaded water, taking two of three from Anaheim and salvaging one of three from the Rangers, the two best teams in the American League West.

"We're not thinking about any sweeps," third baseman Jamey Carroll said. "Hopefully, good things will happen."

Offensively, they finally did Sunday. Wilkerson went 3 for 5 with four RBI, including the game-breaking three-run double in the midst of a five-run eighth. All nine Nationals starters collected at least one hit en route to smacking out 15. They took a 2-0 lead after one inning, the first time they have scored in the first since June 4.

And they held the lead -- despite the fact that starter Sun Woo Kim found out he would pitch just 17 hours before game time, replacing Esteban Loaiza, out with a sore neck and upper back. Throwing Kim out on short notice against the Rangers -- who hit six homers in the first two games of the series, adding to their major league lead -- seemed almost cruel.

"It's difficult," Kim admitted afterward.

It didn't show. For 42/3 innings, he was in control, allowing just two singles and a solo homer to Richard Hidalgo, but nothing else. How could Kim, making a spot start, pull this off?

"They are an outstanding fastball-hitting ballclub," Robinson said of the Rangers, "and if you don't get them off the fastball, you'll get killed -- just like we did the first couple of days. Kim kept them off balance today by mixing up his pitches and getting them off the fastball."

But he could only go so far. Leading 3-0 in the fifth, his right forearm cramped up. Robinson called for right-hander Travis Hughes, who was in Oklahoma City a night earlier, playing for the Class AAA New Orleans Zephyrs. What's more, in April, Hughes was cut loose by none other than the Texas Rangers.

So when he came in and struck out Michael Young -- then posted two more strikeouts in 11/3 innings to get his first major league win -- he became the newest castoff National to show other teams he might be worth something.

"It was nice to get a little redemption," Hughes said.

And nice for the Nationals to settle down, trudge forward and continue to look down at the rest of the division.

"It's nice to be there now, but the key thing is being there on the last day of the season -- or the day after the last day of the season," Robinson said. "It's nice to be there now, but that's not what we're concerned about. We're concerned about winning our share of ballgames."

Or, as far as the rest of the league is concerned, more than their share.

Jamey Carroll, left, and Gary Bennett celebrate after Bennett scores in the fourth inning for the Nationals.