Braves 5-3, Nationals 3-4

-- They had let so many opportunities pass, were they last month or last week or Wednesday afternoon or later that night. Take two of the Washington Nationals' 63 losses headed into Wednesday, turn them into wins, and they could have been looking down on the rest of the National League's wild-card race, rather than up.

Yet in the first game of a doubleheader at Turner Field, it looked as if they were merely trying to emphasize that point. They failed to score a runner from third with less than two out. They had the tying run picked off first in the eighth inning. They allowed Atlanta Braves center fielder Andruw Jones to go 3 for 4 with five RBI, and they lost, 5-3.

But in the latest moment that showed the Nationals' tease of a season may not end until the final week, Brad Wilkerson shrugged off those squandered chances and created his own. Wilkerson daringly stole third base in the ninth inning of a tie game, and when the throw from Braves catcher Brian McCann sailed into left field, he scored the game-winning run in a badly needed 4-3 victory that not only made all the previous missed opportunities seem less important, but kept the Nationals within striking distance of the lead for the National League's wild-card playoff berth.

"I was just trying to catch them off guard," Wilkerson said, "trying to get to third, trying to make something happen."

A logical thought, considering nothing seems to happen when the Nationals wait around. That the Braves, who lead the National League East, all but gave the nightcap away with a bad base-running mistake in the seventh by Todd Hollandsworth and two regrettable errors mattered not to Washington. All that mattered was that the Nationals -- seemingly finished perhaps six or seven times over the last six or seven weeks -- remained within two games of the Philadelphia Phillies in the race for the National League's wild-card playoff berth.

Yes, the Houston Astros, Florida Marlins and New York Mets all still lead the Nationals as well. But the late win means that Thursday's series finale against the Braves, not to mention a three-game series at RFK Stadium this weekend with the Phillies, are all meaningful.

They are meaningful not only because of Wilkerson's daredevil act, but because Livan Hernandez pitched 71/3 gutsy innings; because Mike Stanton came in with the bases loaded in the eighth and struck out McCann, a rookie, on three pitches; and because, when Wilson Betemit tied the game with an RBI single immediately after McCann's whiff, right fielder Jose Guillen unfurled a two-hop throw to catcher Brian Schneider, cutting down Adam LaRoche with what would have been the lead run.

They are meaningful, too, because 23-year-old Chad Cordero pitched the ninth for his major league-leading 43rd save, tying the franchise record set by John Wetteland in 1993, back when the team played as the Montreal Expos.

Yet even with all that, just two pitches, both from the right hand of Nationals starter Esteban Loaiza, were all it took for Washington to drop the opening game. The first was a cut fastball in the first, one that was supposed to bite in on Jones.

"I just got it over the plate," Loaiza said later, after Jones muscled it over the left field wall, a three-run homer.

The second was a cutter away, and Jones reached out and drove that to right, a two-run single that broke a tie.

"They got five runs, and those five runs, Andruw Jones got," Loaiza said. "And if he didn't, we would've won, 3-0."

But even with Jones's outburst, the Nationals could have won the afternoon game, were they a team that possessed sound offensive fundamentals. When opportunity knocks, the Nationals dive behind the couch.

"It's just leaving cheap runs out there, and in close ballgames, it comes back to haunt you," Manager Frank Robinson said. "You've got to take advantage of your opportunities."

In the first, they managed to score one run, but with men on first and third and just one down, Preston Wilson popped to shortstop, and Vinny Castilla bounced one back to the pitcher. No more. Jones's homer followed in the bottom of the first, putting Atlanta up 3-1. But Nationals outfielder Marlon Byrd went 3 for 4, doubled and scored in the third, then hit his first homer for Washington in the fifth, a solo shot that made it 3-3.

But it wouldn't be a Nationals game without some more chances gone bad. The best came in the eighth, when a walk and an error put men on first and second with nobody out. Wilson, though, followed with a miserable at-bat, striking out. Kyle Farnsworth replaced Chris Reitsma on the mound, and on Farnsworth's first pitch to Castilla, McCann caught Guillen dancing too far off first. Though a television replay showed Guillen may have slipped his hand in safely, first base umpire James Hoye called Guillen out.

"That just can't happen," Robinson said. "It can't happen. The coach [Don Buford] can't let it happen, and [Guillen] can't let it happen."

Wilkerson made things happen in the second game. The Braves tied the game in the eighth on Betemit's single, but couldn't go ahead because of Guillen's throw to Schneider, a "game-saver," Robinson said.

Wilkerson then led off the ninth with a single, was bunted to second and then made his dash for third -- and, it turned out, the victory -- with Johnson at the plate.

"That's what I've been looking for all year long," said Robinson, who turned 70 Wednesday. "I guess he just decided to give me a birthday present. . . .

"We have to give ourselves a lot more opportunities to score than other ballclubs, because we don't take advantage of very many of our opportunities. We have to try to give ourselves as many as we possibly can."

Which, finally, Wilkerson did Wednesday night.

Brad Wilkerson scores the go-ahead run on Braves catcher Brian McCann's throwing error after stealing third base in the ninth. Nick Johnson watches.A fan is in position to make a catch that Nationals left fielder Marlon Byrd cannot on Andruw Jones's three-run homer in the first inning.Livan Hernandez delivers for the Nationals in the second game, giving up three runs in 71/3 innings. The Braves' Andruw Jones had a three-run homer and a two-run single in the first game.