WASHINGTON -- Their ace, Livan Hernandez, was gone from the game, having given all he had for nine innings, 150 pitches' worth. Their offense hadn't produced a hit in a couple of hours.
And they were facing the NL East-leading Florida Marlins, a team that had won four of their five meetings so far this season.
Yet the Washington Nationals have reached the point where they expect to win close games, and they did so again Friday night, beating Florida 3-2 in 11 innings on Ryan Church's bases-loaded sacrifice fly.
"It just shows what kind of team that we are," Church said. "We don't give up."
Having started a two-week homestand by taking three of four games from the Atlanta Braves, followed by Friday's series-opening victory, the Nationals pulled within a half-game of those two teams for the division lead.
"It's just another step forward for this baseball club," said manager Frank Robinson, whose 2004 Montreal Expos finished last, 29 games out.
"It's nice to be near the top. It's nice to be on top, if you get there. It's better to be there than last place. But we have to understand what the circumstances are. You can't get carried away with it. Our goal is to get on top."
The Nationals scored in the 11th without the benefit of a hit -- in fact, their last one of the evening came in the fourth inning. Instead, the winning run came courtesy of two walks, an error and the final flyout.
Jamey Carroll walked, and Jose Guillen hit a grounder to Nate Bump (0-3) that seemed destined for a rally-ending double play. But the reliever's throw to second sailed over shortstop Alex Gonzalez's head.
"It looked like he was playing for the Heat, trying to jump-shot that one," Marlins manager Jack McKeon said. "The fundamental plays -- that's the difference. You make them, you win. If you don't make them, you don't win."
The Marlins brought in left-hander Matt Perisho to face Nick Johnson, who walked to load the bases. John Riedling then came in and got Vinny Castilla to pop up for the first out. That brought up Church, who hit a shallow fly to left. Carroll easily beat Miguel Cabrera's throw to the plate, which was wide and short.
"I was just hoping it was deep enough," Carroll said.
It made a winner of Luis Ayala (4-3), who pitched the 11th. Juan Encarnacion led off with a single, and Paul Lo Duca bunted. Ayala tried to make a play at second, but his throw was late -- leaving both runners safe. But Damion Easley popped up a bunt attempt, and Alex Gonzalez grounded into a double play.
"He put himself and the ballclub in a tough situation, but he got us out of it," Robinson said.
That mirrors Hernandez's pattern: get in trouble, then get out of it.
He and Marlins starter Josh Beckett each allowed two early runs, Hernandez's in the third, Beckett's in the fourth. But Beckett then retired 14 of his last 15 batters before leaving after eight innings; Hernandez retired 14 of 16 in one stretch and lasted nine.
"He can probably throw 18," Church said, smiling and marveling.
In the eighth, Hernandez loaded the bases with two outs, but first baseman Johnson leaned over a railing to backhand Easley's foul popup. Then, in the ninth, pinch-hitter Mike Lowell singled with one out and was replaced by pinch-runner Juan Pierre. But Luis Castillo hit a liner and Hernandez snared it, then doubled off Pierre to end another long outing by the NL's leader in innings pitched.
"He's their horse," Beckett said. "Frank Robinson said, 'Here. Here's the ball. It's your game to win, your game to lose.' You've got to respect that a little bit."
And while Hernandez might not conjure up many 1-2-3 innings, he keeps the Nationals in the game. Lately, they've felt as if they were in every game, no matter who's pitching. Washington has won five of its last six - four by one run each, the other by two runs -- and it's 12-7 overall in one-run contests. This also was the team's 19th comeback victory.
"I need a break. I need an easy one," Robinson said. "It would be good for the body and the mind, the stomach and the heart."
Florida, meanwhile, has lost eight of 10 -- and is 1-4 in extra innings.
"What is that now? Sixteen of our 24 losses, we've scored two or less runs," McKeon said. "We had chances."
- Encarnacion's two-run single in the third gave him career RBI 500 and 501. But he was thrown out by shortstop Cristian Guzman 's relay from outfielder Marlon Byrd on a double by the next batter, Lo Duca.
- Nationals CF Brad Wilkerson sat out with a sore right hand.