Nationals 5, Cubs 4

There was no way to win this one, not after unflappable Chad Cordero blew his first save in more than two months, not with yet another man placed on the disabled list, not with 35-year-old reliever Hector Carrasco on the mound for the fourth straight day, not with another 35-year-old, Joey Eischen, being sent out to nail it down.

But by the time 40,006 fans filtered out of Wrigley Field into a perfect summer evening, the final on the old, hand-operated scoreboard in center field Sunday read Washington 5, Cubs 4, in 12 innings. Whether it seems plausible or not to any of those dumbfounded fans -- let alone the teams in either clubhouse -- that's how it ended, the Nationals' sixth win in a row, their ninth in their last 10 games, their first three-game sweep of a series on the road all year.

"That gave you an indication," Manager Frank Robinson said, "of what this ballclub is all about."

As if anyone following baseball's return to Washington needed another reminder. The CliffsNotes version: The Nationals blew a two-run lead in the ninth on Aramis Ramirez's home run off Cordero, scored two in the 11th on Brad Wilkerson's bases-loaded double, gave that lead back in the bottom of the inning on a homer to Jerry Hairston and a broken-bat, two-out, RBI double to Todd Hollandsworth.

So with those Cubs fans -- who are watching their team, now back at .500, come dangerously close to falling out of serious postseason contention -- ever-optimistic that that final comeback would demoralize the Nationals so badly that Chicago had to win, Washington catcher Brian Schneider stepped to the plate with two outs in the top of the 12th. Left-hander Sergio Mitre, whom Schneider had never faced, threw ball one, and Schneider waited for a pitch he could hit.

"After a long game like that," Schneider said, "you're just happy to put a good swing on it."

Which he did, sending it into the right field stands for his sixth homer of the year, the lead the Nationals, finally, wouldn't give back. Thus, their unlikely story continues as such.

Sunday, they played their 81st game, and they arrive at the midway point of the season with the second-best record in the National League, just a game behind the St. Louis Cardinals, the defending league champion. They have done it in a fashion that is so far beyond improbable it is bordering on ridiculous. Sunday, they placed first baseman Nick Johnson on the disabled list with a bruised heel, and prepared to call up Matt Cepicky from the minors. When Cepicky is activated Monday, he will be the 44th player to put on a Nationals uniform in the first half of the season, the most in the majors.

"It's just staggering," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "We're very blessed. A lot of things have gone right for us. I've always believed what Branch Rickey said, that luck is the residue of design. But this is amazing.

"The organization worked very, very hard to build depth, and thank God we did, because we really had to use it."

A look at the lineup sheets Robinson posted over the past few days -- when Johnson and shortstop Cristian Guzman were unavailable -- shows how much that depth has been stretched. Sunday, Carlos Baerga started at first base because Wil Cordero, who had been serving as Johnson's replacement, had fluid drained from his left knee. Things got so bad, though, that Cordero had to pinch-hit in the 11th.

"Whatever it takes," Cordero said. "I don't care."

Before the game, Robinson was asked whether he ever really examined the lineups he used.

"I'm afraid to look at them," he said. It was only partly a joke. As he walked through the clubhouse before the game, Robinson asked Ryan Drese, the starting pitcher, not to look at the lineup card. "You might get sick to your stomach," Robinson said.

"Vegas wouldn't make odds on some of those lineups I've put out there," Robinson said. "But they go out, and they've done the job."

They did the job Sunday in circumstances with which they are almost wholly unfamiliar. Drese gave them seven scoreless innings in which he was virtually unhittable and Luis Ayala pitched a scoreless eighth. Since he gave up a 1-0 lead to the Atlanta Braves on April 21 at RFK Stadium, Cordero had received the ball in 26 save situations, and converted them all.

He figured to do it again. He got the first two men -- Todd Walker and the superhuman Derrek Lee -- to fly to center. But Jeromy Burnitz managed to fist an 0-2 pitch for a single. And after Cordero fell behind Ramirez 2-1 on a pair of sliders, he went back to his comfort zone, the fastball.

"I had to challenge him," Cordero said.

Ramirez, though, was ready, and he launched the pitch into the left field seats, tying the game. Yet the mood back in the Nationals dugout was actually one of opportunity, with Robinson and the players of one mind: help out Cordero.

"He's picked us up all year long," Schneider said. "It was our turn to pick him up."

Wilkerson did first, ripping the two-run double that made it 4-2. Then, after Carrasco allowed Hairston's homer, put two more runners on with two outs, and Eischen fell victim to Hollandsworth's double -- one that shattered his bat -- Eischen got a grounder with the bases loaded that shortstop Jamey Carroll narrowly converted into a game-saving out at first.

That afforded Schneider the opportunity to be a hero. And it affords the team representing the nation's capital, the first one to do so in 33 summers, to be a bit corny about what it all means.

"We're witnessing the birth of America's team," Bowden said. "We are what America's all about."

Brian Schneider heads home after his 12th-inning homer gave the Nats the lead for the third and final time against the Cubs in Chicago. Carlos Baerga and catcher Schneider celebrate a hard-fought 50th win at the season's halfway point. Chicago's Aramis Ramirez, left, celebrates with Jeromy Burnitz after Ramirez tied the game with a two-out, two-run homer in the ninth off Nationals closer Chad Cordero.