Nationals 4, Cardinals 1

Jose Guillen ran.

The ball trickled off his bat rolling no more than 80 feet, much of it in foul territory along the first base line at RFK Stadium. He could have stopped, Manager Frank Robinson said later. Most hitters would. It was a foul ball. Why try to run?

But still Jose Guillen dropped his head and sprinted, his feet chewing clumps of dirt and pieces of chalk. His arms swung.

His helmet wobbled.

Not run? Not now, Guillen thought. The Washington Nationals were in last place. Desperation was setting in. Later -- after the Nationals had beaten the St. Louis Cardinals, 4-1 -- he would shrug and say, "You just never know."

Cardinals pitcher Jeff Suppan thought he knew. He saw the ball roll foul and stopped his pursuit. Guillen roared past and just as he did, the foul ball turned fair. First baseman Albert Pujols picked it up. Too late. Guillen already stood on first. The RFK crowd was screaming and for the first time in a long while this looked something like the old Nationals.

Just when it seemed lethargy had set in and their season was about to spiral into an abyss, there came this victory over the best team in the National League. And it wasn't just that Washington won a game it absolutely had to win, it was the way the victory happened: with runs made from nothing, with frantic sprints down the base line and with a starting pitcher -- Esteban Loaiza -- hurling strikes past bewildered Cardinals hitters.

"This is what we should do," Robinson said. "It's how we win the game. Run hard, play smart."

If you needed to see how much the Nationals still cared after sleepwalking through two losses in three games to the Cincinnati Reds, all you had to do was watch them last night, pulling together for four runs against Suppan and then playing defense with renewed intensity.

If you needed to know how relevant this team still remains in its first season here all you had to do was look around RFK on the first night baseball went head-to-head with a Redskins game and see 37,855 fans -- almost 4,000 more than the Nats' average. So what if maybe a quarter of them were wearing Cardinals jerseys? By the end of the night, the roar was as loud as almost any here this year and there weren't many St. Louis voices.

"It was loud," Loaiza said as he smoked a victory cigar after his third win in four starts. "But I had to block the noise out while I pitched."

He looked as good as he has all season, at one point striking out six of seven batters. He went long stretches without giving up a hit and didn't allow a run until Jim Edmonds walked and scored on So Taguchi's single in the seventh. The day before, Washington starter Livan Hernandez looked lost in a 5-3 loss to the Reds. If ever the Nationals needed an inspired performance, it was last night.

And with Loaiza it came.

Later he would say he was simply trying to throw strikes. In a fashion that has become typical for him, he deflected praise, heaping it on his teammates. He would say first baseman Nick Johnson saved him from disaster in the first inning. With runners on first and third and one out, Jim Edmonds smashed a ground ball to Johnson, who even as Robinson shouted "throw it home!" stepped instead on first for one out and then tagged Larry Walker for an inning-ending double play that startled everybody.

And right there something seemed to happen to the Nationals. After keeping the National League's third-best hitting team from scoring in the first, they looked invigorated. Brad Wilkerson led off the first by launching the third pitch he saw into the right field bullpen for a home run.

Three innings later came Guillen's mad dash down the line. He stood on first base smiling, looked at Pujols and asked what had happened. Pujols shrugged. He didn't understand how Suppan could give up on the ball, he replied. On this night, though, after having given away so many games themselves, Guillen and his teammates would take it.

A Preston Wilson single to the right-center field gap and a Brian Schneider smash off Pujols's arm and Washington was up 2-0. Even Loaiza got a hit, a single up the middle that scored Wilson and Washington was up 3-0. A Guillen triple off the center field wall and a Wilson sacrifice fly to right made it 4-0, and that was more than enough. Later, Guillen stood in the middle of the clubhouse, looked around and laughed.

"I didn't see this fire when were playing Cincinnati," he said. "I don't know, maybe that's something you [reporters] can tell."

Robinson sure could. Robinson has been preaching hustle and desire for weeks, even as the team has started to crumble. He tells them they aren't good enough to win by simply expecting to win and frets that they play to the level of their competition.

"We have to play the same way every night," he said. "You can't say, 'Oh, we're playing Milwaukee or Cincinnati, so all we have to do is show up and we'll beat them.' "

But the formula for last night's victory was the kind he likes. Timely hitting, aggressive base running, good pitching, big defensive plays.

"We did it tonight. Now if we can do it tomorrow -- we'll see," he said.

They'll need to. Because in this crazy season of ups and downs, first place and last, their desire is vital.

Brad Wilkerson puts the Nats ahead with a solo homer off Jeff Suppan in the first. Washington built a 4-0 lead before the Cards scored in the seventh.The Nats' Jose Guillen is safe as Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols picks up Guillen's slow roller, which had spun back into fair territory.Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson tags out Larry Walker to complete an inning-ending double play in the first, after the first two Cards had reached.