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Still, Balester gave the Nationals a chance, and after a slow start they eventually took advantage of it.

Washington had no trouble racking up hits against San Francisco starter Kevin Correia, who surrendered 12 of them in 5 2/3 innings. Runs, however, were a different story. Despite getting singles from their first three hitters of the night, the Nationals managed not to score (thanks to Willie Harris getting picked off first base).

They finally got on the board in the fifth when Bowker booted Harris’ groundball to first and allowed Ryan Langerhans to score.

The big hits, though, came in the sixth, beginning with Jesus Flores’ two-run homer to left. After a brief lull, the second-year catcher has caught fire again with nine RBI over his last six games. This blast tied the game 3-3 and set the stage for the Nationals to take the lead, which they did.

With a man on second, two outs and the pitcher’s spot due up, Acta elected to send up pinch-hitter Johnny Estrada instead. The veteran catcher has endured a wasted season to this point, spending two stints on the DL with an elbow injury and accruing all of 49 at-bats entering Wednesday’s game.

This, though, was precisely the kind of situation the Nationals envisioned Estrada thriving in when they signed him for $1.25 million over the winter. And sure enough, he delivered when called upon, sending a base hit up the middle to bring home the go-ahead run.

“It’s too bad he got hurt early in the year and he has never been able to get on a roll,” Acta said. “But we all know his history, and it’s too bad we haven’t been able to have that bat here this whole season.”

Estrada’s clutch hit put Balester in line for the win and set the stage for Washington’s new closer to finish things off. Too bad the old setup man couldn’t hold the lead.

“I’ve got a lot of things on my mind now,” Ayala said. “Mostly I need more focus and try to take care of my feeling and my confidence.”