Nationals 4, Cubs 3

Jeromy Burnitz, the Chicago Cubs' right fielder, danced off third base with one out in the eighth inning Friday afternoon. "I was trying to read a chopper," he said, "or a wild pitch." Get a good break on either one, Burnitz figured, and the game would be tied.

But Brian Schneider, the Washington Nationals' catcher, shot a quick glance down the third base line, then gave an even quicker signal -- "I can't say what," he said afterward, smiling -- to third baseman Vinny Castilla. When Livan Hernandez unfurled his body to toss his next pitch, Schneider received it, jumped and fired toward Castilla.

"I thought it was going to hit [Burnitz]," Castilla said.

Schneider, with the game either saved or tied, thought the same thing. "It made me real nervous," he said, "right when I released it."

But these days, when the word "Washington" is plastered across your chest, the ball never, ever hits the runner. So it sailed just over Burnitz's shoulder, Castilla applied a slap of a tag, Hernandez worked out of the inning, and -- surprise, surprise -- the Nationals took another how-did-they-do-that decision, this one 4-3 over the Cubs in front of 38,973 at Wrigley Field.

"It saved the game right there," said Hernandez, who tied Florida's Dontrelle Willis, St. Louis's Chris Carpenter and the Chicago White Sox' Jon Garland with his 12th victory of the season, virtually ensuring himself a spot on the all-star team, which will be announced Sunday night.

But so much went into that 12th win, both before and after Schneider's gutsy pickoff call. And most of it happened in the bottom of the eighth, when the Cubs looked to the packed house like they would come back on the Nationals, who have dared collapse so often recently, yet always staved it off.

Hernandez took a 4-2 lead into the eighth, allowing homers to Derrek Lee and Todd Hollandsworth in the sixth, yet little else in the way of threats. But Lee, perhaps baseball's best player in the first half, began the eighth with a towering fly ball to right. Jose Guillen tried to settle under it, but as he looked up, he realized something was drastically wrong. His sunglasses were perched atop the brim of his cap, not on his face. He couldn't see the ball.

"I should have been wearing my glasses," said Guillen, who hit his 16th homer in the first. "That was a rookie mistake on my part."

So an out turned into a triple, and Burnitz came up as the tying run. He ripped the first pitch he saw from Hernandez down the right field line, toward the foul pole marked with the words, "Hey, Hey." And when first base umpire Brian O'Nora signaled a fair ball -- a home run -- that's just about what the crowd yelled, for the game appeared to be tied.

Yet the reaction from the Nationals was unanimous. First baseman Wil Cordero and second baseman Junior Spivey ran toward O'Nora. Guillen trotted in all the way from right, and both Schneider and Hernandez pointed foul.

"It wasn't even close," Guillen said.

By the time Nationals Manager Frank Robinson emerged from the dugout to discuss the matter with O'Nora, the umpire was already moving to get help from plate umpire Tim Welke. It didn't take long for O'Nora to admit he had lost track of the ball, and Welke to say he had a clear view of it. Welke waved off the homer.

Burnitz, though, was relentless, shooting a double into left field to score Lee with the run that made it 4-3.

A fly ball from Todd Walker moved Burnitz to third, and Hernandez threw ball one to Hollandsworth, the next hitter. That's when Schneider signaled Castilla, and the pickoff was on. Cubs third base coach Chris Speier briefly argued the play, but Burnitz knew his fate.

"That was a big mistake in a big situation," Burnitz said. "I wish I could have it back. I can't."

The normal line of progression would be that Hernandez would finish out the eighth -- which he did, at one point throwing a 60-mph curveball to pinch hitter Aramis Ramirez, then following it up with a 90-mph fastball -- and giving the ball to closer Chad Cordero, whose resume now includes 25 consecutive save opportunities converted. But Cordero had pitched three days in a row, and Robinson wanted to give him a rest.

In trotted Hector Carrasco, who last saved a game on April 30. And he immediately threw three straight balls to the first batter, pinch hitter Michael Barrett. Pitching coach Randy St. Claire walked to the mound.

"Please throw a strike," St. Claire joked that he told Carrasco. But in reality, Carrasco was coming off an alarming couple of days. Driving his Hummer home from RFK Stadium early Thursday morning, he blew out a tire. No big deal. Just call for help, get towed, and move on.

"But no one came," Carrasco said.

Finally, teammate Carlos Baerga arrived. The two waited for more than two hours. "He could have been hit by a car," Baerga said. He finally went to sleep, he said, between 6 and 7 a.m., then came out and pitched a crucial inning in Thursday afternoon's win over the Pirates.

"It was pretty hard," Carrasco said. "But today, I felt a little better."

After the chat, St. Claire felt better, too. Carrasco followed through on his motion a bit better, and came back to strike out Barrett looking. He did the same to Ronny Cedeno, and finally got Corey Patterson on a grounder to first to end the game.

Typical? Only for these Nationals.

"That's the way we do it," Carrasco said. "Everybody has fun here."

Washington's Hector Carrasco, right, and first baseman Wil Cordero celebrate a win over the Cubs after Corey Patterson, left, makes the final out.Washington starting pitcher Livan Hernandez argues that a ball hit by Chicago's Jeromy Burnitz was foul.