Phillies 2-4, Nationals 1-5

They were dead, done, finished. Down four runs, the offense somewhere in the breakdown lane off Interstate 95, no hope or heart apparent as they moved to the final hour of a long summer day at Citizens Bank Park.

"We were going, 'Oh, my God,' " Carlos Baerga said. " 'Here we go again.' "

Except while the crowd of 34,492 at Citizens Bank Park was getting ready to christen the Philadelphia Phillies as true playoff front-runners, the Washington Nationals stirred in the visiting dugout. As Baerga said: Here we go again, something of a theme for the Nationals. They have, repeatedly, seemed ready to stumble off a cliff this summer, only to grab onto one remaining twig and somehow yank themselves to safety. Thursday night was no different, trailing by four runs in the second game of a doubleheader, having already dropped the opener, 2-1.

Yet they won. They won because Preston Wilson and Baerga came up with clutch run-scoring hits in a season-saving eighth inning. They won because four relievers bailed out ineffective starter Ryan Drese. And they won, 5-4, because they aren't ready to play meaningless games just yet.

"You never know about this club," Manager Frank Robinson said. "Just when it looks like it's down and out, it sticks its head up and does some good things."

The good things came some 10 hours after most of the players showed up at the park for this day-night affair. But all that matters is that they eventually arrived. Instead of falling 21/2 games back of the Phillies in the race for the National League's wild-card playoff berth -- a fate that seemed predetermined as early as the fourth inning, when Philadelphia built that lead -- the Nationals clawed back yet again.

They left Philadelphia not only with a badly needed split of the doubleheader, but with a split of this four-game series, remaining within a half-game of the Phillies in both the National League East and the wild-card race. And they boarded buses for New York for a weekend series against the Mets, one which concludes this season-long 13-game road trip, in a decidedly better mood than what had appeared probable only hours earlier.

"We need that one," reliever Joey Eischen said. "That makes taking out the Mets a lot more possible. You go in there with your sails down, you're in trouble. Now, we go in there with our sails full of wind."

That the breeze picked back up didn't seem likely for most of the day. The Nationals spent much of the first game frittering away scoring opportunities, managing just one run -- on, of all things, a single from shortstop Cristian Guzman -- in the second inning, when they had the bases full and no one out. Outfielder Brad Wilkerson was the biggest culprit, popping up a curveball from Phillies starter Vicente Padilla for the second out. Second baseman Jose Vidro followed with a grounder to short.

"Bases loaded?" Wilkerson said. "We need to score more runs there."

They needed to score more runs, period. The Phillies got the big hit, a two-run double from Bobby Abreu in the bottom of the third, a changeup Nationals starter Tony Armas Jr. meant to put low and away, but left too high. "A hitter like that," Nationals catcher Gary Bennett said, "if you make mistakes out and up, over the middle, he's not going to let you get away with it."

They wasted another chance in the sixth, when, with no one out and Castilla, hitting just .211 with runners in scoring position, at the plate, Robinson gave the signal: Bunt. Castilla missed on his first attempt, and Robinson took the bunt off. Castilla grounded into a double play.

Why not stick with the bunt?

"Why didn't I?" Robinson said, glaring. "I just didn't."

That tone of frustration was apparent after the 2-1 loss, and the mood in the clubhouse between innings was decidedly dreary. Castilla, sweaty and dejected before he showered and dressed for the second game, was pointed in his comments.

"We can't let more time go by," he said. "We got to start right now,"

Yet it took well into the evening for that to happen, after Drese allowed one run in the first, after he gave up a two-out, two-run homer to Chase Utley in the third, after David Bell hit a run-scoring double off him in the fourth. All the pitches were too high. "I need to get them down," said Drese, a sinkerballer, and his ERA over his last six starts -- 7.22 -- would indicate that's a fair evaluation.

"You're not going to get major league hitters out that way," Robinson said.

So what reason was there, truly, for hope? Even when Vidro, playing on two painful quadriceps muscles, punctuated a 3-for-4 night with a two-run double in the fifth, a comeback didn't seem likely. Even when Nick Johnson followed with a double of his own, making it 4-3, it seemed like too much.

Yet in the eighth came Phillies reliever Ugueth Urbina, who had faced six Nationals in this series and retired them all. He came after Jose Guillen with a fastball, and Guillen drilled it to left-center, a double. With one out, Wilson managed a single to left, and Guillen aggressively raced home to tie it. Wilson, alertly, took second on the throw. That brought up Baerga, who started in Castilla's place at third.

"You have to know the situation," Baerga said. And he did. Urbina started him with fastballs. Baerga waited for the changeup, and pushed it past Utley at second base, scoring Wilson with the game-winner.

A season saved? Maybe not. Maybe just extended.

"This ballgame is a big swing for us," Robinson said. "Instead of having a disastrous stand here, we at least got away with a split. It's like a two-game swing, really."

The Nationals' Preston Wilson comes home with the go-ahead run -- courtesy of a Carlos Baerga single -- in the eighth inning of the second game as Phillies catcher Todd Pratt awaits the throw.Preston Wilson finds the going gets rough as he is tagged out by second baseman Chase Utley in the opener.Ryan Drese, the Nats' starter in Game 2, calls for a new ball after the Phillies' Chase Utley deposited the previous one over the fence for a homer.