Since when did people around here grow so accustomed to winning they can turn their nose up at being 11/2 games out of a playoff spot? Since when did 11/2 games back with 36 remaining become the worst place in the world to be?

The Nationals aren't dead. They're just where they should want to be, hanging close with a bunch of home games between now and the end of the season, and nobody in all of baseball expecting them to do anything.

You think things can't change in a hurry? The White Sox lost eight games off a 15-game lead in 24 days. The Nationals don't have to make up that kind of ground. They don't have to be heroic or even prolific. They just have to win at home, the way they did against Cincinnati last night, the way they won at home in the first half of the season. "We don't have to win 10 straight," Manager Frank Robinson said afterward. "The teams [contending for the wild card] are mostly in the same division and playing each other the rest of the way."

One-and-a-half games back isn't where the Nationals hoped to be on July 3 when their lead in the NL East reached 51/2 games after sweeping the sorry Cubs in Chicago. But in the big picture, is sure isn't bad for a team that one year ago today knew it was about to be homeless, a team still without an owner, a team with the lowest payroll of anybody in contention in the National League. One-and-a-half games out starting the final week of August for this team? Even now it's a Disney flick, not some reason to wander into September hangdog. "I think that's why we don't see anybody in there panicking," Robinson said as he made a right turn into his team's dressing room.

"We have to do whatever it takes right now," Robinson said. "That's our rallying cry: whatever it takes. We have to put it together now. We can't win one, lose one, win one, lose two."

A quality start and some timely hitting is enough to do that and the Nationals, for a change, got both last night. Until he ran out of gas and allowed a two-run homer in the ninth, John Patterson pitched like an ace, getting himself out of a seventh-inning, bases-loaded, nobody-out jam without benefit of a double play. And he did that when the Nationals were clinging to a 2-1 lead. (Is it just me, or does Patterson, who already wears No. 22, arch his back and stand on the mound just like Jim Palmer? Doesn't he hold his hands high just like Palmer?)

Jose Guillen hit a go-ahead home run. Brian Schneider and Vinny Castilla drove in insurance runs in the seventh. The Nationals don't need to turn into mashers, and they probably couldn't if they wanted to. All they need is for two hitters to get hot for a month, whether we're talking Jose Vidro and Nick Johnson, or Guillen and Castilla.

We're not talking about catching the Braves to win the division, just playing well over the final month to challenge for the wild card. Oh yes, it 's do-able, very do-able.

Of course, any optimism would have to be based largely on the notion that the teams in this wild-card scrum are as flawed as the Nationals, perhaps more so.

The Astros are the A's of the National League. Houston looks impressive for long stretches but ultimately disappoints. Just like the A's. The Astros have already wasted one of the greatest pitching performances in the past 50 years. Roger Clemens, with his 1.56 ERA, has pitched well enough to be 23-3.

In only three of his 26 starts has he allowed more than two earned runs.

Instead, he's 11-6 and has been on the wrong end of shutouts seven times this season. The Houston hitters should be ashamed of themselves, sabotaging what otherwise would be perhaps the greatest pitching season since the mound was lowered in 1969. So don't tell me the Astros are world-beaters. Anemic in the best of times, that lineup is now without injured Jeff Bagwell.

The Mets have even more severe injury problems. Mike Piazza is hurt. Mike Cameron, his face busted up from that collision, is out and perhaps for the season. And Carlos Beltran, considering his huge contract, could be the most disappointing player in the NL this season.

All you need to know about the Phillies is that Jon Lieber, with his 4.91 ERA, is their second best starter. Please. Philadelphia has nothing resembling an ace.

Okay, Florida does (Dontrelle Willis). But the Marlins' bullpen is blah, and Juan Pierre and Mike Lowell have had sick bats all season.

Not only are all four of the Nats' wild-card competitors flawed, they're operating with outsized expectations. The Mets and Phillies always are by virtue of playing in New York and Philly. The Astros are coming off a Game 7 playoff appearance against St. Louis last season. And the Marlins are one season removed from winning the World Series.

The Nationals aren't carrying around any of that baggage.

Okay, we know they can't hit. They've scored fewer runs than any other team in baseball, which really is the kiss-of-death statistic. The Nats have scored 22 fewer runs than the Kansas City Royals, who recently lost 18 straight.

Still, since the Nationals are losing mostly tight games, many by one run, they can certainly can produce meaningful runs by having smarter at-bats, by running the counts deeper to make opposing starters throw more pitches, by advancing runners, by manufacturing runs.

The Nationals' top three starters -- Patterson, Livan Hernandez and Esteban Loaiza -- are just short of Houston's Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte, but probably the equal of any other trio of the wild-card contenders including Florida's Willis, A.J. Burnett and Josh Beckett. Plus, the Nationals have the best closer of the bunch -- of the entire league in Chad Cordero, who struck out both batters he faced last night for his 40th save.

What the Nationals simply must do, without exception, is become dominant at home again for the final month of the season. Through June they were 29-10 at home, which was best in the majors. Since, they've inexplicably gone 6-13. With 23 games at home to just 13 on the road, the Nationals don't even need that much help. They just need to beat their wild-card rivals at home. They play Philly six times, all at home. They get the sorry, no-account Giants for three games at home. Of seven games against Florida, four will be played in Washington. For that matter, the Nationals get the under-.500 Padres for three games in San Diego.

A number of teams with allegedly better lineups, bigger payrolls and infinitely more pedigree are looking up at the Nationals, jealously.