WASHINGTON -- Florida's Josh Willingham went back, back, back and leaped, reaching his glove over the top of the 8-foot fence in left field, hoping to somehow make a catch and prevent Washington's Nick Johnson from delivering a tying homer in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Well, one out of two ain't bad.
Willingham got his glove on the ball, but it popped out and onto the field as he fell to his hands and knees, leaving Johnson with an RBI double. Still, that allowed the Marlins to stay ahead 4-3, and two outs later they won by that score Thursday night to complete a three-game sweep of the reeling Nationals.
"That was the best play I've ever made without catching it," said Willingham, who had doubled in what turned out to be a key insurance run in the top of the ninth.
His defensive gem came in front of the visiting bullpen, and Marlins relievers sitting there said they could tell the ball would have cleared the fence were it not for Willingham's play.
"No doubt," added closer Kevin Gregg, who was watching from the mound, having surrendered Johnson's hit.
Faced with a two-on, one-out situation and a one-run lead, Gregg earned his second save by getting Paul Lo Duca to ground into a double play.
"I want to be the guy up in that situation," Lo Duca said. "I just didn't get it done."
And so it was that the NL East-leading Marlins were left to savor their fifth victory in six games, improving to 6-3, a pleasing start for a team that finished last in 2007. And the Nationals? A seven-game losing streak has them an NL-worst 3-7 after a 3-0 start.
"We're just losing by one run," center fielder Lastings Milledge said. "It's no big deal. ... There's 100-and-something games left."
Willingham had help for Florida, specifically Mark Hendrickson's seven strong innings and Jorge Cantu's three hits and two RBI.
Hendrickson (2-1) gave up one run and three hits, striking out two, while matching his longest outing since going eight innings on June 25, 2006, for Tampa Bay. The 6-foot-9 Hendrickson, who played for four NBA teams over four seasons, was downright dominant for a stretch Thursday.
"Keeping us off balance," Johnson said.
After allowing hits to the first two batters in the third -- Ronnie Belliard's leadoff homer that made it 1-0, and Felipe Lopez's infield single -- the lanky lefty got down to business.
Hendrickson retired 13 batters in a row, and 14 of his last 15, the only lapse coming when he hit Johnson in the back in the seventh. The Nationals failed to capitalize, however, because the next man up, Austin Kearns, grounded into a double play.
"I was reading the hitters very well," Hendrickson said.
In the sixth, Washington's Odalis Perez (0-2) gave up Hanley Ramirez's leadoff double and Jeremy Hermida's tying single. After Mike Jacobs's single, Perez was done for the night, and Cantu greeted reliever Saul Rivera with a tiebreaking RBI double.
Perez's line: 5 2/3 innings, two runs, six hits, six strikeouts. Not spectacular, maybe, but it was the first time in the series that Washington's starter departed with fewer than seven runs on the board for Florida.
"Unfortunately," Perez said, "I lost with a good effort."
That is precisely what manager Manny Acta keeps saying about his Nationals -- they are putting forth the effort -- and why he isn't about to start worrying.
"Just because we're losing doesn't mean we're going to have to turn the lineup upside-down," Acta said. "What am I going to do, take (Ryan) Zimmerman out of the third hole because he's hitting (.209)? We've got to keep on working and we're going to get out of it."
- It was the Marlins' first three-game road sweep of the Nationals. "I don't care if it was the road, home -- or the Caribbean. I don't care. We won. Three games is three games," Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez said.
- Hendrickson's single in the seventh matched his hit total for all of 2007.
- After the game, Florida activated C Mike Rabelo from the 15-day DL and optioned C Paul Hoover to Triple-A Albuquerque.