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Hernandez's winning streak longest since 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) -- It looked like a mismatch: Livan Hernandez
pitching on an extra day's rest against a struggling Athletics
lineup.

Hernandez threw eight strong innings to win his eighth straight
decision, and Nick Johnson hit a three-run double to lift the
Washington Nationals past Oakland 4-3 Thursday night for their
season-best seventh victory in a row.

Sure, Hernandez gave up hits here and there -- he always does --
but he didn't allow the A's to score until the eighth. The big
right-hander threw 127 pitches one start after tossing 150.

Then he went down into the clubhouse and watched the ninth
inning on TV while talking on the phone to his mother. Chad Cordero
gave up an unearned run in the ninth before getting his 17th save,
but that just fit the pattern: This was the Nationals' 14th one-run
victory, tied for the most in the NL.

"I wasn't nervous," Hernandez said. "I know if something's
going to happen, it's going to happen. And everything that's
happening is good for us now."

Less than half a season removed from the misery of small crowds
and 95 losses in Montreal, the Nationals are 34-26 after earning
their third sweep, already matching the franchise's total for 2004.

They lead the NL East by 1½ games after winning 10 of 11. And
they improved to 21-9 at home, a .700 winning percentage that's the
best in the NL.

"I guess we've gotten comfortable real quickly in this
ballpark," manager Frank Robinson said.

Oakland, on the other hand, has lost 11 straight road games and
is last in the AL West. Manager Ken Macha's bid to change things up
by bypassing on-field batting practice didn't exactly get his
offense going. In nearly half their games -- 29 of 59 -- the A's have
scored three runs or fewer, and they're 4-25 in those contests.

After Nationals second baseman Carlos Baerga's error allowed
Oakland's third run to score, Cordero retired Bobby Crosby on a
routine grounder with runners at second and third to end it.

"The guys played hard all the way to the end, had the winning
run on second base," Macha said. "These guys keep playing like
that, good things are going to start happening. Hopefully they'll
start tomorrow."

Washington did all its scoring in the third inning, batting
around against starter Joe Blanton (1-6), who went six innings and
allowed seven hits.

Hernandez led off the third with a single, and after Brad
Wilkerson lined out, the Nationals got four straight hits: singles
by Ryan Church and Jose Guillen to fill the bases, then doubles by
Johnson and Vinny Castilla.

Johnson's shot sailed over the head of center fielder Mark
Kotsay and bounced to the wall, scoring three. Castilla's hit
scored Johnson, making it 4-0.

That was enough for Hernandez (9-2), who gave up two runs, eight
hits, walked one, and struck out five.

"With a pitcher like that you have to battle -- we need to do a
better job of it," Crosby said.

Hernandez stranded a runner at second in the first inning, a
runner at third in the third inning, and runners at the corners in
the fifth.

In trouble, right back out of trouble. That's his M.O.

The Athletics finally got to Hernandez in the eighth, when Jason
Kendall led off with a single and scored on Crosby's triple. Kotsay
added a sacrifice fly.

"To play defense behind him is great, because he's always
throwing strikes, and he keeps you in the game," Castilla said.
"He doesn't throw 94-95 [mph], but his fastball's good enough, and
he puts it in the right time and the right place. That's what
winning pitchers do."

As many innings as he logs -- leading the NL the last two years
in that category and out front this year, too -- Hernandez hasn't
always ended up with winning records. He finished only three of his
previous eight major league seasons with more W's than L's.

But now he owns his longest streak since winning nine
consecutive decisions for Florida in 1997, when he went on to be
the World Series MVP. That has him on pace to surpass his career
high of 17 wins, set with San Francisco in 2000.

"He pitches the edges of the zone, that's why his pitch count
is always high. Once he gets strike one on you, he'll get you
guessing," Macha said. "Most of the time, he gets you guessing
the wrong way."

Game notes
Nationals OF Marlon Byrd was suspended for two games by
Major League Baseball for last weekend's run-in with an umpire.
He's appealing. ... The A's optioned OF Charles Thomas to Triple-A
Sacramento and recalled OF Matt Watson, who started in left and
went 0-for-4.