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Finally, Nats get ahead

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ATLANTA -- The hit came off the bat of Ronnie Belliard, a line-drive single to right. The run was scored by Chris Snelling, who could have waltzed in from third base without fear of being thrown out. And the mood inside the Washington Nationals' dugout was one of pure joy.

As center fielder Ryan Church put it to manager Manny Acta: "We've got a lead!"

Mark it down: At 9:32 p.m. on April 12, in the eighth inning of their 10th game of the season, the Nationals took their first true lead of 2007.

And thanks to a subsequent RBI single by Ryan Zimmerman, a brilliant performance by starting pitcher Jason Bergmann and a trademark ninth-inning escape by closer Chad Cordero, Washington secured its second win of 2007.

And what a win it was, a tense-yet-gratifying 2-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves before 23,897 stunned fans at Turner Field that snapped a six-game losing streak and sent the Nationals (2-8) to New York feeling good about themselves for the first time in a long time.

"When we scored those two runs, it was like, 'Yeah, we've got them!' " Belliard said.

Said Church: "We stuck together and just grinded it out."

Added Acta: "We know we can do it now."

Having failed to hold a lead at any point this season other than the final moment of their 7-6, walk-off win over the Florida Marlins on April 4, the Nationals might have doubted the breakthrough ever would happen.

This game remained scoreless going into the eighth, but that's when Washington's lifeless lineup finally struck. With runners on the corners and one out, Belliard lined a sharp base hit to right off Atlanta ace John Smoltz, bringing Snelling home with the night's first run and putting Acta's team finally ahead.

Zimmerman followed with a run-scoring single to right, providing some cushion and allowing the Nationals' bullpen to finish things off.

Jesus Colome (1-0) and Jon Rauch retired the side in the seventh and eighth innings, respectively, bringing Cordero out from the bullpen for his first save opportunity of the year.

This ballpark has been troublesome for Cordero. Braves fans remembered well the game last May 13 when the Washington closer gave up two ninth-inning homers, including a game-winning grand slam by Jeff Francoeur, and that at-bat was shown on the stadium video board last night as the heart of the lineup prepared to come to the plate.

"It was just a weird feeling," Church said. "They played that video, and the same kind of guys are up as last year."

This time, Cordero emerged victorious despite some harrowing moments. Shying away from the fastball he usually relies on, the right-hander wound up loading the bases with two outs, including walks of both Andruw Jones and Francoeur. But with the crowd roaring and tension in the air, Cordero struck out rookie Scott Thorman on a 3-2 slider to end the game in dramatic fashion.

"If I had blown this one, given up a couple runs, even if they would have tied it, it would have been devastating to me and the whole team," he said.

The thrilling conclusion capped a nip-and-tuck ballgame that saw both clubs struggle to push early runs across. Smoltz (1-1) set the first six batters he faced down in order, but in the third, the Nationals put together what looked like the long-awaited end to their offensive troubles. Brian Schneider drew a leadoff walk, and Snelling then got hit by a pitch.

But in a scene only this club could have pulled off, it all collapsed in seconds. In his attempt to get a sacrifice bunt down, Bergmann popped the ball right to third baseman Chipper Jones. Schneider got caught off second, and Jones gunned the ball there to complete a double play.

And when Felipe Lopez struck out to end the inning, the Nationals had established a new precedent for offensive futility. They are the first team in major league history to fail to score in the first three innings of their first 10 games.

Thankfully, Bergmann matched Smoltz's dominance pitch-for-pitch, turning in an unlikely gem. The right-hander allowed four runs in 32/3 innings in his first start this season, but he rallied in a big way. Despite issuing four walks (three in the first two innings), he struck out a career-high eight over six innings of one-hit ball.

"Kudos for the kid," Acta said. "He did a tremendous job."

Bergmann didn't figure into the decision, because the game was still tied when he departed. But if the Nationals were allowed to credit him with a win, they would have.

"Honestly, I needed it a lot, confidence-wise, for myself," Bergmann said. "But I think the team needed it more than me. We're in a position where people are telling us we're going to lose X number of games, and we want to prove them wrong."

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