Phillies 4, Nationals 3

There he was one last time, his knee aching, burning, leaving Livan Hernandez a shell of the man who just months ago was one of the most feared pitchers in the National League. Earlier this week in Miami, he showed the knee to a doctor who told him he could operate the next day, taking away all the hurt for next spring training.

But it would have meant missing Friday night and Hernandez could not do that. He could not walk away from a start. Not if he thought there was still a way he could pitch. So last night he trudged to the mound at RFK Stadium and with the knee biting he threw one final game.

One game that meant nothing.

Seven innings later, after leaving the field behind in a game he would eventually lose 4-3 to Philadelphia, he was satisfied. He had done his job, he had also taken the league lead in innings pitched -- a token of pride, something that he could take with him into the winter of surgery and then rehabilitation.

"I can get the surgery but it's important to me to finish the year," Hernandez said after the game.

Across the field the Phillies celebrated their victory that was sealed in the ninth when closer Billy Wagner managed to get Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson to break his bat on a popup that Wagner caught with the tying run dancing off third base. They celebrated because the win pulled them within one game of the wild-card leading Astros and left the hope that their season might not die just yet.

Washington's already had. On the 34th anniversary of the last game the Washington Senators ever played here, leaving RFK dark through the summers until this season, the Nationals played another game that meant nothing significant in the standings. And for six innings against Philadelphia starter Cory Lidle, they walked through the game as they had against many other pitchers in the past -- generating little in the way of offense.

But this would not deter Hernandez. His team might not be scoring, his doctor in Miami has an operating table ready for him on Wednesday, yet he would not let this season go.

His catcher last night, Gary Bennett, has come to know these games from Hernandez. He's caught them before like the sweltering day in Miami back in August with everything slipping away and Washington desperate for a win and Hernandez threw 145 pitches and went eight innings to give them hope.

Bennett could see Hernandez was hurting last evening. There's a way the pitcher's arm begins to flap out rather than come over the top. When Hernandez does this the ball does not have the same bite. It flattens out, rises and becomes more hittable. And there were times the Phillies could take advantage of this.

Their shortstop Jimmy Rollins did twice to extend his hitting streak to 34 games -- 12th best in baseball history.

Their first baseman Ryan Howard hit a motionless curveball for a home run to right field.

Their left fielder Pat Burrell hit a fast ball that rose and came in slow for a double that drove in Philadelphia's fourth run. And Kenny Lofton hit a hard single up the middle for the fourth run -- the one that became the difference in the game.

Still, it was an impressive effort to the Nationals.

"Absolutely," Bennett said when asked if the outing had impressed the rest of the team. "Obviously we're all hurting, but he didn't have to go out there and pitch. He took the ball and went out there and battled."

"He wants to go out there," Manager Frank Robinson said. "He wants to take the ball and go pitch."

Last night, he threw 130 pitches, an unimaginable figure for almost any pitcher in his condition. Then after he talked about how much he wanted to be out there, how important it was to lead the league in innings pitched, he stopped. There was something he wanted to say. Something he wanted everyone to hear.

"I want to say thank you to the people who gave me an opportunity to play in a beautiful city like D.C." he said. "I know you have a lot of people who worked hard to bring the team to D.C."

Then he was done. There was nothing left for him.

Philadelphia's Chase Utley steals his 16th base of the season ahead of the tag from shortstop Cristian Guzman. The Nats fell to 81-79 with two games left. Mike Lieberthal greets Billy Wagner after Philadelphia took care of business in the wild-card race; Houston leads by one game.