Nationals 5, Marlins 2

The situation called for something the Washington Nationals can never be sure of -- another run -- and with minor leaguers called up to the big leagues for the rest of September, Manager Frank Robinson had any number of bats at his disposal on the bench. But in a 1-0 game, with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, Robinson considered his options: Bring someone else in, and sit down the masterful Livan Hernandez, or let the pitcher hit for himself.

"He's in complete control of that ballgame," Robinson said. "He's a battler, a warrior. And I'm not going to take him out of there."

Plus, there is the matter of Hernandez's skill with the bat. "It's not like you're sending an out up there every time," first baseman Brad Wilkerson said. "He can very easily get a base hit."

So that's precisely what Hernandez did, floating a pitch from Florida reliever Guillermo Mota over first base, scoring the run that helped the Nationals break open what became a 5-2 victory yesterday afternoon, a hit that got the seats along the left field line at RFK Stadium jumping up and down like they did back in June, when everything about the Nationals was going right, when things like the pitcher getting a key base hit could have been expected. The win was their third in a row, just the second time they have accomplished such a feat since the all-star break.

Outfielder Marlon Byrd followed Hernandez with his third hit of the day, a three-run double, and though the portly right-hander from Cuba didn't quite finish things off the way he wanted -- allowing a two-run homer to Miguel Cabrera before being removed in the ninth -- it was, to be sure, Hernandez's day at RFK. He beat the Marlins by looking like his old self. Gone was the pitcher who posted a 6.69 ERA in August. Back was the man who won 12 games before the all-star break.

As catcher Gary Bennett said, "He was himself, doing what he does," and it showed up in an eight-inning, six-hit, two-run performance that wasn't the shutout he wanted, but nonetheless raised his record to 15-6. It helped the Nationals gain a game on the Marlins, one of three teams ahead of them in the race for the National League's wild-card playoff berth. Houston now leads the wild-card race, with the Nationals 11/2 games back.

"It's hard to beat that team," Hernandez said of the Marlins, and it's particularly difficult when you receive few runs. For most of the afternoon, the announced crowd of 32,150 figured Hernandez would have to make Jose Guillen's RBI single in the first inning stand up, because even though the Nationals have played better in recent days, three times yesterday they failed to score men from third with less than two outs.

Yet the failures in crucial situations, not to mention the fissures in the clubhouse, are easier to overlook when the team wins. Though the home locker room at RFK remains something of an odd place to be -- with no music or television, per Robinson's orders, with most players seeking solace in the training room or watching video behind closed doors -- for three days, at least, none of it mattered. That might change when they send rookie Darrell Rasner to the mound tonight against the Marlins, because he has never pitched in a major league game. But as Labor Day weekend closed and the stretch run truly began, the team felt something like a team again.

"We're playing with a lot of enthusiasm," third baseman Vinny Castilla said. "We've got some confidence back."

Castilla said this less than two hours after he had been removed in the bottom of the sixth for pinch runner Kenny Kelly. Stunned, Castilla walked slowly off the field, then jogged, before flipping his batting helmet down along the front of the dugout. It landed in front of Robinson. The 38-year-old Castilla admitted he was surprised to be removed at that point, but the addition of such call-ups as Kelly, a fast runner, and rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, a gifted fielder, have provided Robinson with more options to try to win games.

Castilla displayed no frustration afterward.

"We struggle to score runs," Castilla said. "So he's probably thinking a base hit, I'm probably going to get thrown out at home, so he pinch-run for me."

Still, the Nats failed to score when Hernandez grounded into a double play to end the inning. But he still had his best in him.

In the top of the eighth and the Nationals still clinging to that 1-0 advantage, Damion Easley hit a one-out double. With two outs, Florida's leadoff man, Juan Pierre, had the opportunity to tie the game. Hernandez fell behind 3-0, but then worked the count full. He said he knew Pierre would be looking for something outside, so he came in. Pierre took strike three on the inside corner, and Hernandez slapped his glove and virtually skipped from the mound to the dugout.

"I was fired up," Wilkerson said, and it was something of a trend. When Hernandez made it 2-0 with his eighth-inning single, raising his average to .247, he pointed both his index fingers at the dugout. When Byrd ripped his bases-loaded double, making it 5-0, he did the same thing. When Hernandez was removed in the ninth, tipping his hat to the RFK crowd, shortstop Cristian Guzman, who had been lifted for a pinch hitter, was the first one out of the dugout to greet him.

Such sights, rarities at RFK during an abysmal second half of the season, popped up over these past few days, with two wins over the Phillies and this one over the Marlins.

"This is a different team today than I've seen in awhile," Wilkerson said. "Hopefully, that'll carry over. . . . It's the way we should play. Coming down the stretch here, it's going to be a lot of emotion. Hopefully, it's on the good side for us."

Livan Hernandez gives the Nationals a boost, taking a shutout of the Marlins into the ninth inning while getting two hits to help his cause, including a key RBI single in a four-run eighth.Nats outfielder Marlon Byrd (3 for 5, three RBI) is pumped up after his seventh-inning triple.The Nats' Brad Wilkerson comes home to meet pitcher Livan Hernandez, center, and catcher Brian Schneider, right, as all three scored on Marlon Byrd's double.Livan Hernandez thumps his chest after striking out the Marlins' Juan Pierre to end the eighth inning, after falling behind 3-0 in the count.