Nationals 3, Dodgers 1

When he arrived in his new clubhouse three weeks ago, Preston Wilson was viewed as one of the final pieces, a potential power hitter who could add some juice to the Washington Nationals' suspect lineup and continue a run toward a divisional title. Yet in the next 17 games, Wilson stumbled. He hit .220. He slugged .373, more than 100 points below his career mark. Prior to last night's game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, his manager, Frank Robinson, said Wilson looked "confused" at the plate. His hitting coach, Tom McCraw, was even more succinct.

"He's dead," McCraw said.

Which, of course, was an apt description of this entire Nationals outfit. But maybe they discovered something last night. Wilson, just trying to fit into his new team and discover the formula that helped the Nationals remain in first place for seven weeks, belted a two-run homer in the fourth inning, helping provide badly needed energy in a 3-1 victory over the Dodgers before of an announced crowd of 36,552 that sat through a sweltering evening at RFK Stadium -- and, for once in these tough times, was rewarded.

"It's one game," Robinson said.

True enough. But for Wilson, it may have been illuminating. Certainly, the Nationals didn't cure their significant offensive woes in a single evening, even after Nick Johnson added a key insurance run with a solo homer in the eighth. And Wilson's homer -- his third as a National and 18th of the year -- wouldn't have mattered at all had relievers Luis Ayala, Mike Stanton, Gary Majewski and Chad Cordero not bailed out ailing starter Tony Armas Jr. with four innings of two-hit, scoreless ball.

But Wilson, acquired in a trade with Colorado for pitcher Zach Day on July 13, had come to represent something of the team's struggles. When he arrived, the Nationals led the National League East by 21/2 games. They entered last night trailing the Atlanta Braves by 51/2.

"It's definitely different, coming in during the season," Wilson said. "Guys have their roles set here, and they're doing their things, and they've been doing those things their way all year. You just have to sit back and watch."

What he watched, though, didn't befit a first-place team, and he couldn't seem to provide the difference. In 59 at-bats as a National prior to last night, Wilson struck out 20 times. General Manager Jim Bowden, concerned about an offense that is among the worst in baseball, thought Wilson could make a difference. But before last night's game, Bowden's assessment of the entire team -- which had lost seven of eight -- had him looking not for new additions, but perhaps to energy drinks, to restore some life.

"Our team, I look out there, and a lot of time I don't know where the energy went," Bowden said. "It's like I want to give the whole team a Red Bull. . . . I swear to God, they look dead out there."

They could have been dead, too, the way things began, stranding a runner at third with one out in the first, then having Wilson picked off second base in the second. Armas was shaky, allowing a solo homer to Milton Bradley, and eventually had to leave after five innings when he felt tightness in his right shoulder. An examination revealed tendinitis, and though he is listed as day-to-day, team officials said Armas -- who improved to 5-0 with a 2.71 ERA at RFK -- is likely to make his next start.

Yet even with the pitching staff in the process of putting up another outing that was sufficient enough to win, there had to be some offense, somewhere. It didn't really figure to come from Wilson, who said before the game that he was searching a bit. Some nights, he felt good at the plate. Others, he didn't.

"He's almost waiting to see what the pitch is before he makes his move to hit," McCraw said.

In the fourth, for at least a moment, he figured it out. With two outs and Jose Guillen at second, Dodgers starter D.J. Houlton grooved one. The topic of how difficult it is to hit homers at RFK has become something of a cliche. But Wilson is new. He sent the ball to straightaway center, where precious few Nationals have dared go before. The shot gave the Nationals a 2-1 lead, and may have helped Wilson fit in better in his new environs. It was his first homer in a Washington win.

"I'm not sure exactly what he's thinking," catcher Gary Bennett said. "But I'm sure there would be some sort of pressure you put on yourself. We trade for you. We're in first place. We get him over here to extend the lead. From that aspect, I'm sure there is some sort of pressure."

Wilson said he didn't feel the pressure. "It's not like they brought me here to be the one thing to get the team over the top," he said. But when Cordero worked through the ninth -- allowing a deep fly ball to Dioner Navarro that Guillen tracked down in right, and then a two-out single -- Wilson got to feel something that the RFK crowd knew better than he did. This, two months ago, was a typical Nationals victory, marked by a couple of key hits and stellar pitching.

"I can't wait for us to get back to that formula again," he said.

It all means that tonight, with John Patterson carrying his 2.60 ERA to the mound, the Nationals have a chance to win a series for the first time in their last eight, and to post back-to-back wins for the first time since July 3.

"That's a nice tone," Robinson said. "That's a nice ring. Those are nice words. That's nice to hear. It's been a while."

Tony Armas Jr. allowed only one run and earned the win, but struggled and left after five innings because of tightness in his shoulder.Nick Johnson admires his solo home run in the eighth inning, which provided the final margin in the Nationals' 3-1 victory over the Dodgers. Happy days are here again as the Nationals' Chad Cordero celebrates his strikeout of Hee Seop Choi for the final out of the game.