Nationals 2, Pirates 1

Ryan Drese hasn't been here long, hasn't even really gotten comfortable, and had never taken to the mound at RFK Stadium before last night. But anyone with the tiniest morsel of knowledge about the Washington Nationals could look at the lineup card that adorned the wall in the home clubhouse prior to the game and figured out a formula: Squeeze across a couple of runs, and hope the pitching holds up.

Drese held up just fine. Making his third start for the Nationals, the right-hander allowed just one run over eight innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates, precisely what Washington needed to snare a 2-1 victory that could just as easily have been a loss in front of 35,828 at RFK.

Consider that the Nationals played without Nick Johnson, their first baseman who likely won't play against the Pirates. Consider that their game-winning "rally" in the fourth didn't include a hit. And consider that Chad Cordero -- right now, the most effective closer in the game -- entered a one-run game in the ninth and plowed through the Pirates, inducing three lazy fly balls to finish off his 26th save.

"Those things don't happen to you when you're not playing good baseball and you're not winning baseball games," Manager Frank Robinson said. "But you get some breaks when you're playing well -- for whatever reason, I don't know. Maybe somebody up there looks after you when you're going good. Nobody's ever been able to explain that."

It's getting to the point where very few people can explain the Nationals, who improved to an astonishing 19-7 in one-run games. They did it by creating a pair of runs in the fourth on a hit batsman, a walk, an error by opposing pitcher Josh Fogg on a sacrifice bunt that scored the first run, and a sacrifice fly from fill-in first baseman Wil Cordero. Indeed, when you're in first place -- as the Nationals are in the National League East -- the game-winning RBI can come from a substitute player who is hitting .036 for the year.

"It always feels good to contribute," Cordero said.

Someone had to. Afternoons at RFK are now spent discussing various body parts, medical procedures and levels of pain. Right fielder Jose Guillen, who banged up his shoulder while sliding into home on Sunday and had pain in his foot as well, eased his way through batting practice yesterday afternoon, and took his customary spot in the order, third.

"I was not expecting to play at all," Guillen said.

Yet he did, hitting a double and scoring the first run. He said his decision to play was based partly on the absence of Johnson, who is dealing with a deep bone bruise on his heel also suffered Sunday against Toronto. Johnson was originally supposed to be out as long as a week, but his prognosis improved yesterday.

"I think Nick's going to be fine to play by the weekend," General Manager Jim Bowden said.

If that's the case, then the one remaining decision the Nationals will have to make is what to do with outfielder Ryan Church, who hasn't played since slamming into the outfield wall at Pittsburgh's PNC Park last Wednesday. Church has since been diagnosed with a series of deep bruises, and even a slight left shoulder separation, but said the main problem bothering him now is soreness near his right shoulder blade. For now, Church won't go on the disabled list. But Bowden said prior to the game, "We're monitoring it."

So it was against this backdrop that Drese (2-1), flat-out discarded by Texas earlier this month, made his debut at RFK. With the lineup chosen to support him -- six of the eight position players entered the game hitting .261 or below -- he couldn't afford an outing like he had against the Pirates last week, when he couldn't get the first out of the fourth inning. He was different this time.

"He went out there and got strike one," Pirates outfielder Matt Lawton said, "so he could set up his change-up and his curve."

Drese, who allowed a run in the first, was under pressure throughout. He could have folded when an error by Guillen allowed Jason Bay to reach third instead of first, but he responded by retiring Daryle Ward, the next hitter. He could have caved when the Pirates had men on first and second and no one out in the seventh, but he responded by getting a grounder -- a play on which shortstop Cristian Guzman alertly and adeptly fired home for an out -- a strikeout and a groundout.

One mistake, and the Nationals could have lost. Drese never made it.

"It was a nail-biter," Drese said. "It was fun."

It is occasionally inexplicable. It isn't always pretty. But for the Nationals, regardless of who is available, it is the formula: Pitch well, have fun and win.

Ryan Drese holds the Pirates to one run in eight innings for the win. Nats improved to 19-7 in one-run games.Jose Guillen slides home with the Nationals' first run, on Pirates pitcher Josh Fogg's throwing error. Washington scored twice in the fourth without a hit. Nationals catcher Brian Schneider tags out Pirates' Rob Mackowiak at home plate in the seventh inning.Nationals' Chad Cordero is congratulated by Manager Frank Robinson after recording his major league-leading 26th save, including his 23rd in a row.