So much effort has been put into analyzing the struggles of the Nationals' offense -- and the questions aren't likely to stop in the stretch run -- the pitching starts to get overlooked. But even in the difficult times, the bullpen has continued to do its job.

"Just outstanding is the best way to put it," Manager Frank Robinson said.

In 20 games beginning July 28 and ending with Thursday's second game of a doubleheader split with the Philadelphia Phillies, Nationals relievers posted a 1.09 ERA. In Thursday's 2-1 loss in the opener, Mike Stanton, Joey Eischen and Gary Majewski combined to allow two hits over three innings. In the 5-4 win, newcomer John Halama, Luis Ayala, Stanton and closer Chad Cordero pitched five innings of shutout ball.

"It's a good group down there," Eischen said. "We're all pulling on the same end of the rope."

Still, before Ayala's victory in the late game Thursday, the relievers had dropped their last 11 decisions dating from July 3, when Eischen picked up an extra-inning win over the Chicago Cubs.

Sunday's Test

Right-hander Esteban Loaiza will become the first Nationals starter to throw on three days' rest when he starts the finale of a series against the New York Mets on Sunday, a decision made when Halama, called up from Class AAA New Orleans, threw an inning of relief on Thursday.

"You got to do what you got to do," Loaiza said.

Loaiza started Wednesday's 4-3 loss to the Phillies, allowing 10 hits and four runs in 52/3 innings. In the 2-1 loss to the Phillies on Thursday afternoon, Halama was up in the bullpen twice, then entered in the fifth inning of the nightcap, making him an unlikely candidate to come back on Sunday.

. . .

Reliever Hector Carrasco was unavailable for Thursday's day-night doubleheader because he leaped and ran into the outfield wall during batting practice Wednesday, injuring his right shoulder. "I hit the wall hard," Carrasco said. He had X-rays in between games of the doubleheader. They were negative, and he is listed as day-to-day.