Nationals 7, Pirates 5

From his spot along the right-hand wall of the Washington Nationals' clubhouse, Marlon Byrd might feel constrained, what with Junior Spivey crammed next to him on one side, and Jamey Carroll crowding in on the other. Rather, he feels a bond.

"I think our closeness starts with the fact that this place is small," Byrd said, looking around yesterday afternoon. "It's like this team has come up together through the minor leagues."

From his spot on a couch, where he nursed a sore knee, Vinny Castilla sipped a beer and assessed the feeling around him, the month just completed and the months to come.

"A lot of people don't believe in us," Castilla said. "A lot of people don't think we can win the division. Fine. They can feel that way. But this clubhouse, we got a bunch of gamers here."

After yesterday's 7-5 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates -- in which Castilla collected a key two-run single as well as a solo homer and Chad Cordero notched his 15th save in June, tying the major league record for a single month -- there was time for the Nationals to collect their thoughts as they collected their belongings and headed to Chicago for a weekend series with the Cubs. Their situation is, three months into the season, worthy of analysis and introspection.

The Nationals convene every day in a locker room half the size of most in the majors and play a style that almost taunts the opposition into thinking it has a chance to win. Yet they are so comfortable with both their surroundings and their state of mind that they are starting to make self-assessments that others, outside those cramped quarters beneath RFK Stadium, are hesitant to make.

"I think, definitely, we're going to be a contender," center fielder Brad Wilkerson said. "We're going down to the very end."

After a month that ended when right fielder Jose Guillen clinched the final out yesterday afternoon, when an announced crowd of 37,361 stood and cheered, how could the Nationals believe otherwise? They won 20 games and lost six in June, the best mark in baseball. They took hold of first place in the National League East on the fifth day of the month, and haven't shown any inclination to give it back. They played 17 June games at dank and dusty RFK, and won 15 of them.

"People keep saying we can't continue this pace," Manager Frank Robinson said. "I don't know why not."

Yesterday, they continued it on a sunny, muggy afternoon by seizing a 4-0 lead when Castilla ripped a hard grounder to left with two outs in the second. That buoyed starter Esteban Loaiza, who didn't allow a hit through the first four innings. By the time Loaiza took the mound in the sixth, he had a 6-2 lead, and the way the Nationals have been playing, it was reasonable to assume the game was over.

Yet the Pirates opened the sixth with back-to-back singles, and Robinson emerged from the dugout. Loaiza reluctantly gave up the ball after throwing only 69 pitches. But Robinson's thought process matched what he has done most of the year: If a guy is starting to lose it, get him out of there.

"All of a sudden," Robinson said, "I think he just lost a little bit of his location."

Hector Carrasco relieved and immediately walked Jason Bay on four pitches to load the bases, then gave up a bloop single to Daryle Ward that cut the lead to 6-4.

But then, the right-hander who appeared washed up a few years ago settled in. He retired Ryan Doumit, David Ross and Jack Wilson on a popup in foul territory, a strikeout and a fielder's choice, respectively. Given the pitchers that waited in the bullpen -- Gary Majewski handing off to Luis Ayala handing off to the indefatigable Cordero -- it was perhaps the key moment in the game.

"As soon as we get the lead, it's like we're just never going to give it up," Guillen said. "This pitching staff is pitching great. They're just shutting people down. It's like there's an attitude in here."

Castilla provided a three-run lead with a solo shot to left in the seventh, just his second home run in 37 games. As he sat on the couch afterward, Castilla, in a way, embodied the Nationals. Castilla will turn 38 on Monday, and as his averaged dropped to .255 early in the week, Robinson said he appeared to have a "tired bat." Yesterday, Castilla took exception to that assessment.

"If you play this game long enough, you're going to struggle," Castilla said. "I'm no exception. . . . The whole month of June, I was kind of struggling. But I never lost my confidence. That's me. Sometimes, the numbers don't show up, but I show up every day. And at the end of the year, you watch, the numbers will be there."

Likewise, the numbers don't always show up for the Nationals. They have scored two fewer runs than their opponents this season, yet moved a season-best 16 games over .500. They hit .261 during June, allowed opponents to hit .273, yet somehow posted a winning percentage of .769 for the month.

And, as if to give more hope to others, only to snatch it back, Cordero put runners on second and third -- the tying runs, mind you -- to start the ninth. No matter. Short fly ball, strikeout of Bay, an intentional walk, and a shallow fly to right. Ho-hum, his 28th save of the year.

Could there be a better month?

"Yeah," Robinson said. "Twenty-six-and-0."

The Nationals' Marlon Byrd welcomes home Junior Spivey after Spivey and Brad Wilkerson scored on a single by Vinny Castilla in the second inning.Vinny Castilla taps knuckles with third base coach Dave Huppert after hitting a solo home run in the seventh.