Nationals 5, Reds 3

The frustration built in John Patterson, not just last night, not over the past month, but over the entire season. It wasn't that he hasn't pitched well. Quite the contrary. It was the toll of what he goes through, start after start, wondering if this would be the pitch that cost him, if allowing a single in a certain situation would make him a loser on a night he deserved to win.

"That's accumulated stress," Patterson said last night. "Pitching in all those one-run games over a period of four or five months, it can wear on you. It can wear on you physically, and it can wear on you mentally."

It almost got to that point last night, the point when Patterson, as he said, nearly "cracked." He let go of a 1-0 lead, and couldn't afford to give up more. He faced a bases-loaded jam in the seventh, and had to work out of it.

"It was time to get tough," Patterson said.

Which is just what the lanky right-hander has done when the Washington Nationals needed it. Last night was just the latest example, a 5-3 Washington win over the Cincinnati Reds in which Patterson delivered the kind of performance that the announced crowd of 32,641 has come to expect from him. He threw 81/3 innings, allowed three runs and struck out eight. And he didn't relax until the ninth, when he gave up a two-run homer to Javier Valentin.

"He's at the point where you expect a good outing every time," Manager Frank Robinson said. "I don't mean just keeping you in the ballgame. I mean a well-pitched game."

The offense took awhile, but it finally came, a solo homer from Jose Guillen -- his second in two nights -- and a three-run seventh that featured key two-out, run-scoring hits from Brian Schneider and Vinny Castilla. That allowed Patterson to step back from the edge of the cliff, cruise through the eighth, and then enter the ninth calm and collected. The pitch he threw to Valentin was his last, and it cut a four-run lead in half. But Chad Cordero came on for his 40th save, striking out Edwin Encarnacion and Wily Mo Pena for the final two outs.

"It's pretty cool," Cordero said of notching number 40 faster than any closer in club history.

Cool is the way Patterson (8-4) looks when he takes the mound. But last night, he admitted that the Nationals' propensity for forgetting how to score when he pitches can get to him. His last start, for instance, was a 1-0 loss to the New York Mets. So take last night's sixth inning, when he was protecting a 2-1 lead, unable to make a significant mistake. With two outs, he appeared to have Ken Griffey Jr. retired on a liner to right.

But Guillen, who has had his moments in the field, first broke back on the ball, then broke in. It was too late. It hit off his glove, and skittered past him. It was ruled a single and a two-base error, and Griffey scampered to third.

So here came the stress.

"I almost cracked," Patterson said. "The stress was starting to get to me. The stress of it all year."

But he got Adam Dunn to fly harmlessly to left, and, for a moment, his heart calmed again. It began to palpitate in the seventh, when he allowed a single, hit a batter, and then gave up another single to load the bases with no one out. It was still 2-1. The Reds are the National League's highest-scoring team. So much could go wrong.

"He has the ability to reach back," Robinson said.

Robinson had already had his own adventure, even before Patterson took the field. Robinson took the lineup card out to home plate, a move that is rare for him. He wanted to discuss Tuesday's loss, in which the home plate umpire, Chad Fairchild, called a strike on Guillen in the ninth inning. Guillen stepped out of the box and began to argue. According to Guillen, Fairchild, a rookie umpire, told him to get back in the batter's box in a disrespectful manner.

"I never had anyone talk to me like that," Guillen said. "Not my father. Not my mother. I think a few years ago, I don't know what I would have done to him."

Guillen, who has had issues with his anger management over the years, struck out to end the game, but was still upset about the confrontation afterward. He told Robinson about the matter, and Robinson, according to Guillen, agreed to talk to the umpires. He stayed for several minutes, and the conversation was slightly animated.

"Frank, he's got my back," Guillen said.

And right now, Patterson has the back of the entire team. In that seventh inning, with the bases loaded, he got a ground ball to first, one which Nick Johnson tossed home for a forceout. He then struck out pinch hitter Jacob Cruz and got Felipe Lopez, both speedy and dangerous, to hit a dribbler in front of the mound. When Patterson flipped the ball to Johnson for the final out, he pumped his fist five times.

"It was an emotional night for me," he said.

And it was an important one for the Nationals. The stress and strain of a pennant race has worn on this crew, which has fumbled its way through the second half of the season. But here they were again, still upright, with a chance to take today's finale against the Reds and win a series, to keep hanging around this pennant race.

"We have to put it together now," Robinson said. "We can't win one, lose one, win one, lose two."

Do that, and the stress and strain will finally crush them.

Brian Schneider delivers a two-out, seventh-inning single to score Jose Vidro, right, and provide pitcher John Patterson with some breathing room. "It was an emotional night for me," Patterson said. With a one-run lead, John Patterson pitched out of a no-out, bases-loaded jam in the seventh inning. "I almost cracked," he said of the pressure. Jose Guillen homers again last night; before the game, Frank Robinson spoke with umpires about Tuesday's events. "Frank, he's got my back," he said. Catcher Brian Schneider makes the force at home to retire the Reds' Sean Casey. "We have to put it together now," Manager Frank Robinson said of the Nats' drive for the playoffs.