WASHINGTON - The loudest cheers came afterward.

They came late last night in the cramped visitors' clubhouse at RFK Stadium, where the Phillies huddled around a small TV after a critical 7-6 victory over the Washington Nationals. They came after the Florida Marlins rallied to beat the New York Mets, 8-7, in 10 innings to move the Phils within 1 1/2 games of first place in the National League East with just nine games to play.

The Phillies watched every second of Florida's ninth-inning comeback - or make that the Mets' latest meltdown - on TV.

"It's exciting," shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "Usually it's the last three days we're watching. I think we get a full week and a half to do stuff like that this year. But that's what we play for, to be in a position to root for other teams, especially when we don't have a chance to play a team anymore."

The pennant race is tighter today because Rollins, Jayson Werth and the bullpen came up big. Werth hit a three-run home run in the seventh inning to cut the Nationals' lead to 6-5. Rollins scored the tying run in the seventh and knocked in the go-ahead run in the eighth with a double. The bullpen threw seven scoreless innings.

"We've still got some games to play," Werth said. "We're right where we need to be."

Well, not exactly. The Phillies trail the Mets by two games in the loss column. If the Phillies finish the season 6-3, they will need the Mets to play no better than 5-5 to finish in a first-place tie.

So it's imperative for the Phillies, who remain 2 1/2 games behind the San Diego Padres in the NL wild-card race, to keep winning.

They won despite a poor effort from Kyle Lohse, who allowed six hits, six runs, and two walks in just two innings to hand the Nationals a 6-2 lead.

Ryan Howard hit a two-run home run in the first to make it 2-0, but the offense struggled through the next five innings against Nationals righthander Jason Bergmann. In six innings, Bergmann allowed four hits, two runs and two walks.

But the bats awakened in the seventh.

The Phillies had runners on first and second with no outs when Charlie Manuel sent Pete Laforest to the plate to face Luis Ayala, but Nationals manager Manny Acta countered by bringing in lefthander Arnie Muñoz. Manuel responded by having Werth face Muñoz instead.

It worked. Werth crushed a 3-1 pitch into the upper deck in left to make it 6-5.

Rollins followed with a double, moved to third on Shane Victorino's sacrifice bunt, and scored when Chase Utley bounced a ball to second. Ronnie Belliard tried to get Rollins at the plate, but Rollins beat the throw standing up to make it 6-6.

"I was just trying to put the ball in play," Utley said. "It was a curveball. Jimmy got a great read, and it worked out pretty well."

"I was going on contact," said Rollins, whose double in the eighth scored Carlos Ruiz to give the Phillies the lead. "They bring the infield in and my job with my speed is to put the pressure on them."

Now the bullpen just needed to keep putting up zeros.

J.C. Romero coerced an inning-ending double play in the seventh. Romero has been an absolute workhorse. He has pitched in each of the last three games and seven of the last eight.

Tom Gordon, who has pitched six times in the last seven days, took over for Romero with a runner on first and one out in the eighth. He retired the two batters he faced. Brett Myers, also pitching for the sixth time in seven days, picked up his 18th save in the ninth.

The Phillies are alive and breathing, folks.

"We need to handle our business on the field and hopefully get some help elsewhere," Rollins said. "That's what happened tonight."

See video highlights from the game on CineSport at http://go.philly.com/phillies.


Contact staff writer Todd Zolecki at 215-854-4874 or tzolecki@phillynews.com.
Read his blog at http://go.philly.com/zozone.