Nationals 3, Pirates 2

He doesn't look like much, face obscured under the brim of his cap, dark eyes staring straight ahead, fastball topping out at 91 mph. But wait till that final out settles into someone's glove, and Chad Cordero skips. He hops. He thumps his glove against his chest, then walks toward catcher Brian Schneider, bumps fists with him, and playfully slaps him upside the head, his own version of the "Tomahawk Chop."

So it was yet again last night -- make that early this morning -- when the final out of the Washington Nationals' 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates fell out of the dark, misty sky into the glove of right fielder Jose Guillen. Cordero, the Nationals' closer who is known as "the Chief," continued his improbable and impressive season by recording his 27th save, and then came the exchange with Schneider, as regular a ritual at RFK Stadium as there has been since the Redskins' band jammed in the stands.

Crazy thought, back in spring training, to imagine Cordero -- unassuming, 23, wearing an innocent smile -- leading the major leagues in saves. But that's where he is right now, one of the most essential elements in the Nationals' run to first place in the National League East. He had to wait through a 2-hour 8-minute rain delay that sent much of the announced crowd of 31,213 home, but by recording that final out with a man on first, he converted his 24th save opportunity in a row, setting a new franchise record, formerly held by Mel Rojas of the Montreal Expos back in 1996.

"It's pretty sweet," Cordero said afterward, smiling, but that was the extent of the analysis. Let his manager, Frank Robinson, take over.

"He's been terrific," Robinson said. "He's been outstanding. I don't think my vocabulary could come up with anything that would describe how he's been this year. He's carried us on his back when we've got the lead in the eighth inning. . . . It's just unbelievable the job he's been doing. He's gotten better as the season's gone along."

As the season has gone along, the Nationals simply continue to do what they have all but perfected, squeezing out victories because a ball bounces one way. Last night, it was Guillen coming through in the bottom of the eighth, ripping a two-out, tiebreaking double off the leg of Pirates third baseman Rob Mackowiak.

How important are hits like that, late in the game, with the outcome still in doubt? They have made the Nationals contenders. Washington has 20 one-run victories and 29 wins in which they trailed at some point. Guillen's hit made a winner of reliever Luis Ayala (7-4), who has more than twice as many victories as any Nationals starter other than ace Livan Hernandez -- an indication of how frequently the Nationals take the lead late.

"The one-run games, we know: That's us," Robinson said. "That's us. That's all it is. We're not going to run anybody off the field with our offense."

The win pushed the Nationals a season-best 15 games over .500, extended their lead in the NL East to 31/2 games over the Atlanta Braves and secured their ninth straight series win at home, where they have won 14 of 15 games.

The next month will not only help determine whether the Nationals remain in the race, but who will help them stay there. The trading deadline is July 31, and there were indications yesterday that there is no available player the Nationals won't at least ask about. Two sources said yesterday they have already inquired about Houston pitcher Roger Clemens -- a pipe dream, considering his $18 million salary. But they will ask.

There are other targets General Manager Jim Bowden has already inquired about, both realistic and not, one baseball source said. The list includes not only Clemens, but pitchers A.J. Burnett of Florida and Jason Schmidt of San Francisco as well as outfielders Gary Sheffield of the New York Yankees and Moises Alou of San Francisco. The source said no deals are close, and that the team has little to offer in terms of prospects. But the focus, because of the team's performance to this point, is on winning now.

That they are doing, even after starter John Patterson returned after the rain delay -- his choice, he said -- to allow Mackowiak a two-run homer on his first pitch following the break. They are winning now, even when they can't score runs, for last night was their 12th victory in which they have scored three or more.

And they're winning now because of Cordero.

"He's the best closer in baseball right now," Bowden said.

The Pirates' Rob Mackowiak, left, is tagged out by the Nats' Brian Schneider during the 8th inning at RFK Stadium. The game was stalled over 2 hours by rain.The Nats' Carlos Baerga stumbles as he heads for home to score the eventual winning run in the 8th inning. Chad Cordero earned his 27th save.