Nationals 4, Astros 2

Washington Nationals pitcher Tony Armas Jr. made the slow walk off the field at RFK Stadium at the end of the seventh inning last night, soaking in the cheers from the 42,680 fans in the stands. His sterling effort -- he gave up just one hit in seven innings -- was the highlight of Washington's 4-2 win over the Houston Astros, and it was one piece of a larger picture that left the Nationals feeling good for the first time in a long while.

Armas's outing -- coupled with some timely hitting and an effective showing from the bullpen -- was exactly what the Nationals needed, particularly one night after an ugly 14-1 loss to the Astros, their worst of the season. Washington (55-43) snapped a three-game losing streak and won for just the fifth time in 17 games.

"It's hard to describe how badly we needed this, but we needed it bad," Manager Frank Robinson said.

"To play the way we did tonight -- we didn't make any mistakes, we got the big hit there in the first inning, we got great pitching and the bullpen did a great job -- that's the way we've been winning ballgames," first baseman Brad Wilkerson said. "To get back in our frame of mind is key, and tonight was hopefully an example that will get us back in that mind-set of winning baseball games."

Armas (5-4) has been especially good at home this season -- prior to last night, he was 3-0 with a 2.87 ERA in seven starts at RFK -- but his previous start, against Colorado on a hot and muggy Monday night, was eminently forgettable. He left the game after throwing two pitches in the third inning because of dizziness and dehydration.

The right-hander said that he didn't change his routine between games, except for "drinking so much water and Gatorade." The temperature at game time was 83 degrees, but Armas said that the humidity was down and that helped.

It also helped that Washington's offense came alive early. The Nationals scored four runs in the first inning -- their most productive opening inning of the season -- and that was more than enough for Armas, who said that he felt "awesome."

Only three Astros reached base in the first five innings (two walks and one hit batter), and none advanced past first. In the sixth, Armas walked Craig Biggio, and then Lance Berkman followed with a home run to right field to break up Armas's no-hitter. But that was the only blip on an otherwise outstanding performance, in which he struck out five and walked three.

"It's the pitching that sets the tone," Robinson said. "We just looked sharper tonight, more alert, and I think that was because Tony was putting the ball over the plate and getting ahead of the hitters, and making them hit the ball. The defense was on their toes."

Washington's bullpen held down the Astros in the final two innings. Closer Chad Cordero, who hadn't pitched since Tuesday, gave up two hits in the ninth, but struck out two en route to his 34th save.

Prior to last night's game, the Nationals were batting just .211 (32 for 152) with runners in scoring position in July. Robinson said before the game that he had tried everything he could think of to help Washington snap out of its funk, but that what the team really needed was for someone to get that one big hit with a runner on second or with the bases loaded. Washington got just that last night, from a most unlikely source -- 36-year old Carlos Baerga, who was filling in at third base for Vinny Castilla (knee tendinitis) -- and with a little help from the Astros (50-47).

Baerga, who entered the game with just 10 RBI in 55 games, came to the plate with the bases loaded in the first inning. He lofted a ball to center field for what appeared to be the final out of the inning, but the Astros' Willy Taveras took a couple of steps in and then realized that it was sailing over his head. The ball dropped in, Baerga wound up on second with a double, and three runs scored. Brian Schneider then followed with a single up the middle, and Baerga chugged home and slid under Houston catcher Humberto Quintero's attempted tag for the fourth run.

"That first inning was huge for us, to get off to a great start and give our pitcher a little breathing room to relax and throw a good game and not have so much pressure on him," Wilkerson said. "It's the first time we've played with a lead for a while."

The Nationals didn't seem to mind that, after the first inning, their offense reverted to its previous ways; they managed only four more hits the rest of the game and stranded four runners in scoring position.

Now the trick is to build upon last night's success. The Nationals have not won back-to-back games since July 3, and on Tuesday they begin an important road trip against division rivals Atlanta and Florida.

"Wins turn you around," Baerga said. "The biggest win is going to be tomorrow. To come back and win two games in a row, we haven't do that in a long time so we have to win two games in a row. That's the biggest game, tomorrow."

Note: Right fielder Jose Guillen ran into the tarp while chasing down a fly ball in the sixth inning and bruised his left knee. He left the game in the ninth but said that he felt "all right" and would probably be available to play today.

Carlos Baerga scores under the attempted tag of Humberto Quintero.The Nationals' Tony Armas Jr. takes a no-hitter into the sixth inning, when Lance Berkman hit a two-run homer to break it up after a walk. First base umpire Troy Fullwood gives Astros Manager Phil Garner the heave-ho in the eighth inning. Garner argued that Craig Biggio had beaten shortstop Cristian Guzman's throw.