WASHINGTON - "Are you married?"

"Are you married?"

"Are you married?"

Polling interviewers after he punched some daylight through the dark cloud that has enveloped his team, Jamie Moyer weighed in - first with his arm, then his head - on what has become the topic of the week:

Clubhouse tantrums - good or bad?

Chair-throwing - useful or needlessly destructive?

Inanimate-object punching - inspiring or painfully unnecessary?

He did so with this analogy: Volatile marriages?

Good? Or bad?

"I've been on teams that, when they went bad, there's panic," Moyer said after his eight shutout innings (he allowed two runs in the ninth) set the table for the Phillies' 4-2 victory over the Washington Nationals yesterday at RFK Stadium. "There's panic, and all of a sudden, that doesn't work. And then you try something else, and that doesn't work.

"You know what? To me, stay in character. People know who you are if you stay in character as a person. If you have a good day, fine. If you had a bad day, fine, you had a bad day. As long as you're giving an effort. To me that's the most important thing. But stay in character."

Moyer's character, why he is seen as so valuable to a team with young heads and young arms, is that of a calming padre. Indeed there are times he seems more like a team chaplain than a de facto ace - which, with Brett Myers moving to the bullpen, he might have become.

Whether it's reassuring Cole Hamels between innings of a start, or explaining a baseball nuance to a position player, Moyer is the antithesis of Ed Wade's old line about horses and Curt Schilling.

"You hear a guy say 'teammate'?" Phillies manager Charlie Manuel asked. "He's a teammate. I love talking to him. He's what the game is all about."

At age 44, Moyer is effective in no small part because of that embodiment. Facing a lineup of young and anxious hitters, in a spacious park that often forgives pitching mistakes, Moyer did what he does best.

He outsmarted them.

At least he did for eight scoreless innings. Throwing mostly at speeds that wouldn't even draw him a ticket on the highway, Moyer held the Nationals to two hits over that span until the ninth, when back-to-back drives to leftfield plated the Nationals' first run and brought Tom Gordon in for a very Mitchlike save.

Gordon, who hit 94 on the gun and clearly needs more work, hit a batter and allowed a single to load the bases before recording outs on a sacrifice fly, a groundout and a game-ending curveball that froze Chris Snelling and averted another kidney punch to a team that already has trouble breathing.

"We've had some weird things happen," Manuel understated.

Admit it. When the Phillies loaded the bases with nobody out in the fifth inning yesterday, you thought, "Hey, they might get a run here."

And they did.

On a one-out sacrifice fly.

And that was OK, because there have been cases this season when they loaded the bases with no one out and produced no runs.

By now you have been made well aware of the numbers. They lead the league by a West Virginia mile in runners left on.

By now, it's pretty clear this team, as it is constituted, will never be dubbed the comeback kids. The popular theory is that they are not clutch, that they hit best when the pressure is off, but this year at least, they have been no better adding on to leads as they have been in getting them.

The Phillies lost two extrainning games to the Braves to open the season, two games in which their bullpen blew late leads after their lineup had several opportunities to blow the game open.

The Phillies bled out four runs for Moyer yesterday, one drip at a time. Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, who together were 5-for-10, led off the game with a double-single combo against struggling Nationals starter John Patterson. They added another on Aaron Rowand's second-inning home run, one each in the fifth and the sixth as Patterson failed to get out of the fifth.

They also banged out 10 hits and walked five times, and left 10 runners on, adding to their lead in that dubious category.

But a win's a win's a win, right? Especially when it's only the fourth of a young season that has threatened to get real old, real fast.

It will take more than a shaky win against an equally shaky team to make yesterday's game more than a footnote. But for this day at least, Jamie Moyer calmed such anxiety with a performance that emphasized exactitude over emotion, and followed by tweaking one of baseball's recurring messages.

Baseball isn't a footrace.

It's a marriage.

"Sometimes in the marriage relationship, one's in a good mood, one's not in a good mood?" Moyer said. "That's how I can relate it to you. You have to stay together. You have to support one another . . . Deal with it. Roll with the punches." *

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