Nats end three-game losing streak

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Mired in a team-wide slump and smarting from a blowout loss the night before, the Washington Nationals needed something -- even if it was a lucky break -- to shake the doldrums.

It came in the first inning, when Carlos Baerga hit a fly ball to center with two outs and the bases loaded.

"I was jogging to first base," Baerga said. "When I see him come in, I start running. It was like, you know, 'Angels in the Outfield.'"

Willy Taveras somehow misplayed the ball, running forward before retreating as it sailed over his head. Baerga got a three-run double, and that was the difference Saturday night in the Nationals' 4-2 victory over the Houston Astros.

"We just needed something like that to keep going," Baerga said. "Nothing was happening for us the last few weeks. We were struggling with men on base. I was just so happy on second base. I just looked to the sky and gave thanks that the ball fell down."

After that, it seemed like old times for the Nationals -- if June can be classified as old times. Tony Armas (5-4) allowed one hit in seven innings and Chad Cordero got another shaky save -- allowing two hits in the ninth for No. 34 -- as Washington broke a three-game skid and won for just the fifth time in 17 games.

"That's what we've been missing," manager Frank Robinson said. "When they give us a break, we have to capitalize on it. We got an outstanding pitched game from Tony tonight. When Chief came in shaky, I knew we had 'em. The Nationals were back.

"It's hard to describe how badly we needed it, but we needed it very badly. We won it the way we've won a lot of games this year, so that makes us fell a little more comfortable," he said.

Armas had to leave his last start in the third inning because he was dizzy and dehydrated but returned on another sticky night at RFK Stadium to shut down the Astros until Lance Berkman's two-run home run in the sixth. Armas struck out five and walked three to improve to 4-0 at home this season. He was pulled when left-handed pinch-hitter Orlando Palmeiro was announced to lead off the eighth.

Joey Eischen came on to give up a single to Palmeiro, but Gary Majewski finished the inning without allowing a run. Cordero got through the ninth, ending Houston's six-game winning streak and ensuring Washington will spend another day no worse than tied for first with Atlanta in the NL East.

Of course, the entire game would have been different if the rookie center fielder had caught Baerga's fly ball in the first inning.

"It looked to me like his swing was down. I didn't think he would hit it that far," Taveras said. "That is why I was charging in. It is going to happen. We could have won that game 2-0. ... I knew I made a mistake. That was the whole game right there."

The hard-luck loser was Brandon Backe (8-7), who gave up two walks around Jose Guillen's ground-rule double in the first inning. That brought up Baerga, who entered the game with just 10 RBI and was 0-for-4 with the bases loaded. For good measure, the Nationals as a whole entered the game batting just .211 with runners in scoring position in July.

Baerga lifted the ball to left center, Taveras went the wrong way and the score was 3-0. Brian Schneider then singled home Baerga, giving the Nationals a four-run first inning for the first time all season. The runs also ended a 21-inning scoreless streak by Houston's starting pitchers.

Armas took over from there, faltering only in the sixth when he walked Craig Biggio and allowed a full-count homer to Berkman.

"In each at bat, I got pitches to hit. I just missed them, that is all. I got a fastball to hit, I got two curveballs to hit," said Morgan Ensberg, who went 0-for-3 against Armas. "I did a poor, poor job against him."

Astros manager Phil Garner had a tough night with the umpires. He argued three close calls and was tossed on the third one by first base umpire Troy Fullwood, who had called Biggio out after a close play on a chopper to shortstop in the eighth inning.

"In my opinion, it was not a close call," Garner said. "Sometimes [calls] go for you. Sometimes they do not."

Game notes
Guillen bruised his left knee chasing a foul ball and left the game early. He is day-to-day. ... Guillen's ground-rule double hit pitcher Sun-woo Kim on the head in the bullpen. After the game, someone put a sign saying "Hard Hat Area" over Kim's locker. ... Before Berkman's homer, Armas had pitched 10 1/3 consecutive no-hit innings against the Astros. He threw five no-hit innings in a start last year in Montreal but didn't stay in the game because he was on a pitch count after missing two starts. ... If not counting the
games the Expos played in Puerto Rico, Armas hasn't lost a home game since Aug. 30, 2002, against Atlanta. He is 9-0 over 18 starts in Montreal and Washington since then. ... First baseman Nick Johnson (bruised heel) went 0-1 with a walk Saturday night in his first game in a rehab stint with Triple-A New Orleans.