Nationals 8, Phillies 7

-- A second after Chad Cordero threw the ball, almost immediately after Ryan Howard swung -- generating a resounding "Thwack!" that traveled through Citizens Bank Park -- Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson muttered to Eddie Rodriguez, his ever-present bench coach, "Home run."

Yet on a strange Friday night at a strange little ballpark, Howard's blast hung in the air as center fielder Brad Wilkerson felt for the wall. With a sellout crowd of 44,688 on its feet, the ball fell from the dark sky, and Wilkerson caught it while leaning against the 401-foot mark in center field. Cordero, forever unruffled, then recorded the final two outs of a harrowing 8-7 victory for the Nationals over the Philadelphia Phillies, a win that ensured that the Nationals will be in first place headed into next week's all-star break.

Do victories in July mean much? They do after a rare slide, in which the Nationals lost three of four at home to the New York Mets, when they allowed the streaking Atlanta Braves to climb within 21/2 games of the lead in the National League East. But as tenuous as this victory was -- the Nationals twice had five-run leads, and twice allowed the Phillies back in -- it was warmly received in the visitors clubhouse.

"Huge," catcher Brian Schneider said.

"Today, we came in with a different attitude," said first baseman Carlos Baerga. "Everybody knows that we need to win this first game here."

They did it in uncharacteristic fashion, by outslugging a slugging ballclub in a park that yields runs by the bunches. Only once before had the Nationals -- who entered the game having scored fewer runs than any team in baseball -- been involved in a game in which both teams scored at least seven runs. Yet they took a 5-0 lead behind three RBI from left fielder Matt Cepicky, watched starter Ryan Drese -- who threw five innings and allowed four runs -- give the Phillies a three-run fifth, and then built the advantage again on Baerga's three-run homer in the sixth, his first homer since last August 13.

But even with the Nationals' normally reliable bullpen, no lead is safe at Citizens Bank Park.

"It's scary," Schneider said. "You got to give credit to the Phillies catchers, because I don't know if I could come out here every day and give up all these runs."

Yet it was Schneider's exchange with one of those catchers, Todd Pratt, that might have saved the game for the Nationals. When Baerga -- who had two hits, scored three runs and drove in the three on the homer -- scored the Nationals' first run in the second, the Phillies looked to have him nailed at the plate. But a relay throw skipped away from Pratt, and Baerga slid home safely.

So when Pratt came to the plate for his next at-bat, he asked Schneider whether, had he fielded the throw cleanly, Baerga would have been out. "Probably," Schneider said.

Pratt, though, responded that the ball had skipped in front of the plate. "Oh, really," Schneider thought, and filed it away.

The information was essential when the Nationals took that 8-3 lead into the sixth, and the Phillies kept coming. They got one run on a triple from pinch hitter Endy Chavez -- the former National who was hitting just .208 for the Phillies. But Chavez's hit got the Phillies going again, and by the time Howard -- the Phillies top prospect who is playing for the injured Jim Thome -- came to the plate with two outs, it was 8-6 with runners on first and third.

Howard launched a Luis Ayala pitch to center field, where it glanced off the wall, easily scoring Kenny Lofton from third. Pat Burrell, though, was the man that counted, the tying run. Burrell flew around from first, but Wilkerson fielded the ball cleanly.

"He played it great off the wall," shortstop Jamey Carroll said, "and got it to me quickly."

Carroll, in turn, fired home to Schneider. Suddenly, that bit of inside information from Pratt -- hey, the ball might skip -- entered Schneider's mind. When the throw bounced low, Schneider stayed down to receive it, and he tagged Burrell out to end the inning, the momentum change the Nationals desperately needed.

"They tie the game there, it's a different story, probably," Wilkerson said. "But we kept the lead, and our bullpen kind of settled down after that play. It's just a big play that turned the game around."

The bullpen settled down behind Gary Majewski, who pitched two scoreless innings, and Cordero, who put behind Howard's nearly disastrous fly ball to record his 31st save, most in the majors. The Nationals are far more accustomed to 3-2 nail-biters than those in shootout style, but this one-run win -- their 24th, most in baseball -- was badly needed, however it came.

"Tonight, that would have been kind of devastating if this game gets away because of the runs we put up on the board," Robinson said. "It was a big win for us."

The Nats' Carlos Baerga scores on Matt Cepicky's second-inning RBI double.The Phillies' Pat Burrell is tagged out at the plate by Nationals catcher Brian Schneider in the sixth inning.