Nationals 5, Padres 1

-- It had been eight days since he pitched, so it was difficult to know what to expect from John Patterson on Friday night. A sinus infection ravaged him in his last start, then worsened into bronchitis, and the Washington Nationals right-hander lost weight, 10 pounds off an already lithe frame. He was coming off his worst start of the season, and in the tightness of the pennant race, he could have caved in. Instead?

"It was good to see him," outfielder Brad Wilkerson said, "like a bulldog out there."

Patterson growled and ground his way to deliver precisely what the Nationals needed at exactly the right time, a three-hit gem in a 5-1 victory over the San Diego Padres that kept Washington -- suddenly streaking -- on pace in the playoff chase.

Patterson looked completely healthy, completely in control, throwing his second complete game of the year, beating Padres ace Jake Peavy. He was so dominant that scant few of the announced crowd of 38,480 at Petco Park remained in the ninth, and those that stayed had nothing to cheer about. Patterson sat down the last 14 men he faced, finishing the night with no walks and six strikeouts.

"After the first inning, he was really in full control of the game," Manager Frank Robinson said.

And because of that, the Nationals won their fourth game in a row -- matching their longest winning streak of the second half. More importantly, they remained within 21/2 games of Houston in the race for the National League's wild-card playoff berth.

So instead of talking, on a daily basis, about how he felt, when he might pitch and whether he was strong enough -- mentally and physically -- to come through in such a situation, when his team desperately needed this kind of performance, Patterson could think afterward about winning his ninth game, and succeeding under the pressure.

"I think that's given me more energy," Patterson said. "To be honest with you, I was dragging a little bit. We were losing, and it was wearing on me. I really want to make this push and make the playoffs."

Another success story developed Friday night, one far less expected. That would be much-maligned shortstop Cristian Guzman, who just might be returning to the form that made Washington pursue him as a free agent in the offseason. Guzman drove in three runs for the first time all year, first with a two-run double in the fifth that gave the Nationals a 2-1 lead.

"Once we came back, and took the lead," Patterson said, "I was like, 'That's it. That's all I need.' I just battled, and went right at them."

Guzman drove in one more with a triple that provided an insurance run in the ninth, putting the Nationals up by four, allowing Robinson to send Patterson out to finish things off -- a key considering reliever Hector Carrasco will start Saturday, and the bullpen will be relied upon heavily. But he could be backed by an offense that's ready to provide more runs.

Guzman's 2-for-4 night raised his average to .207. He is 10 for his last 28, and the six RBI he has in September match or exceed his totals from April, May, July and August.

"He's been swinging the bat great," Wilkerson said, "and he hasn't given up."

So add that to the encouraging signs at this crucial time. The only lousy development: utility man Jamey Carroll stumbled making a play in the top of the ninth, and had to come out of the game with a rolled ankle. Carroll, however, walked off under his own power, and exchanged fist bumps with his teammates. He is day-to-day.

Still, even with that, the clubhouse was decidedly up. "This is fun," Wilkerson said. The games here this weekend, which follow a three-game sweep of the Mets in New York, are critical to the race not only because each game means something, but because they are, in a way, a breather from the grind that comes from competing in the National League East.

The Nationals are in the midst of a 12-game stretch against sub-.500 teams -- the three with the Mets, three here, three with the San Francisco Giants at RFK Stadium, and then three with the Mets at RFK. That, General Manager Jim Bowden said, is reason enough to believe the Nationals can make this competitive until the last week, when they finish with three at Florida and three more at home against Philadelphia.

"This is your shot," Bowden said. "You want to make a run, you make it right here. And then the last week, you're going to get to play Philadelphia and Florida straight on, knowing that if you're within three, all you got to do is sweep and you're in. We're in position to do it."

They're in better position because of what happened Friday. Peavy (12-7) had already dominated the Nationals once this year, tossing a five-hit shutout on Aug. 7 at RFK Stadium. But Guzman's two-out, two-run double in the fifth gave the Nationals both the lead and some hope, and Preston Wilson delivered a high chopper in the sixth with the bases loaded that scored one run, and then plated another when third baseman Sean Burroughs made an errant throw.

From there, it was Patterson's show. He allowed only Ramon Hernandez's solo homer in the first.

In the ninth, he got Mark Loretta to ground to third, and when Nick Johnson secured the final out at first, Patterson pumped his fist, then hit himself on the chest. This time, it wasn't to clear out a cough. It was to show his heart, at the time his team needed just that.

Robert Fick can't handle the throw from Sean Burroughs, and the Nats' Preston Wilson is safe as two runs score.