Nationals 5, Phillies 4

It was just about to be as bad as it could get. The ace right-hander had done everything he could, allowing just one run. But the sure-as-the-sun-comes-up closer had frittered away a three-run, ninth-inning lead, and the Washington Nationals -- quite familiar with low points these days -- were about to hit a new one. Had the Philadelphia Phillies come back to win last night at RFK Stadium, "I think it would have almost pulled the plug on the life support," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "It would probably have been pretty close to the season, really."

The season, then, is extended another day for this dysfunctional bunch, which for the first time in anyone's memory gathered in a moment of spontaneous joy, slapping backs and hugging each other. Preston Wilson served a soft single into right field in the bottom of the 12th inning, scoring Jose Guillen from second with the winning run in an essential 5-4 victory, bringing at least a few moments of joy to what remained of the announced crowd of 30,561.

So, again: The shovel was in the dirt, the coffin had been lowered, and here came the Nationals, at least for one more day.

"If we lost the game right there, it was going to be a different atmosphere here [today]," said Guillen, who was inserted in the eighth inning and walked before Wilson's single. "I don't know where we were going to go from there. But trust me, if we win that game [today], it's going to be a different story, because we're going to be right there."

They are now three games behind the Phillies, who lead the National League's wild-card race. A win today would be a step in the direction the Nationals have been unable to take in a maddening second half of the season.

"We need to start winning series," catcher Gary Bennett said.

That's what a victory today would provide, at a time when every loss feels devastating and every win staves off, at least temporarily, the frustration of a magical season gone bad. This one could have been wrapped up much more easily, for right-hander John Patterson allowed just one run in 72/3 innings and the Nationals handed a 4-1 lead to closer Chad Cordero, who was looking for his franchise-record 44th save.

"I wasn't thinking anything but win at that point," Patterson said.

But Cordero couldn't get it. He served up a leadoff single, then faced Ryan Howard, the Phillies rookie first baseman who is both massive and talented. With the count 2-1, Cordero tried a fastball low and away, and the left-handed hitting Howard merely flicked it over the wall in left. "A strong man," was Bennett's assessment.

Still, it was 4-3. Cordero, surely, would nail it down. Except he couldn't. The next hitter, David Bell, drove a 1-0 slider that stayed over the middle of the plate deep to left, tying the game at 4, making excruciating pain a very real possibility.

"We had our guy on the mound," Brad Wilkerson said, "and they beat him tonight."

Such a loss, on any day and for any team, would be difficult to overcome. But the Nationals are so fragile right now, it's a wonder they speak to each other. Guillen has been at the center of much of it. He didn't appear in the starting lineup for the second straight game, and he and Robinson offered differing versions of why that was. Robinson said Guillen asked out because he is in pain from myriad injuries he has suffered. Guillen, prior to the game, said that wasn't the case.

Guillen's absence from the lineup, be it for health reasons or not, was noticed throughout the clubhouse. After a victory in May, Robinson said of Guillen: "He is slowly becoming the leader of this ballclub. This ballclub is taking on his attitude, really. Hard-nosed."

Reminded of that yesterday, Robinson was asked if it had changed. "For one reason or another," Robinson said, "yeah."

That kind of swirl had Robinson trying to rein in his team in recent days, banning music and card games in the clubhouse. Why, he was asked, had things turned so sour?

"It's a question I've been asking myself an awful lot lately," Robinson said, "and I don't have the answer. I don't even know if [the players] have it. But it's one I just have no answer for. I really don't."

So they played on in these tenuous circumstances, with Guillen in right field and Wilkerson having moved to first base for Nick Johnson, who aggravated his bruised right heel and left after three innings. Those two have quarreled before, two key figures in a divided clubhouse, yet they would both be part of the victory.

Wilkerson's opportunity came in the 11th, when the bases were loaded with one out, and he darted deftly to his right, scooped up a grounder, and fired home for the force as if he had played first base all season. Gary Majewski got another fielder's choice to end the inning, and the game moved forward.

From there, it was Guillen who drew a one-out walk off Phillies reliever Aquilino Lopez in the 12th. With Wilson at the plate, Guillen moved to second on a passed ball.

And with that, Wilson reached out and touched a 1-2 pitch from Lopez, looping it into right. Guillen scampered home. From there, a scene the Nationals thought they might never create again. Guillen high-fived Vinny Castilla at the plate, and Wilkerson raced out to pat backs. Wilson raced in from the base paths, and pumped his fist in celebration. The team that created such a buzz during the first half of the season was, for a moment at least, together again.

"It seems like it's been awhile," Wilkerson said. "To leave somebody standing on the field, it feels good to do it to the other side for once. It's been a long time coming. Hopefully, that will jump-start us. Yelling and screaming after the game, that's what we need. We need to pick it up and come out tomorrow and kick their butts."

The Nats' Nick Johnson is tagged out at home by Todd Pratt in the first inning. Johnson left the game in the third with a right heel bruise, the same injury that kept him out a month earlier this season. The Phillies' David Bell is greeted after his second big homer in as many nights, this one tying the game in the ninth.