John Lannan had experienced most every slice of the Washington Nationals' history, but Saturday night, tinged with desperation for his teammates, felt fresh and new for him. "I've never been on a first-place team," Lannan said. "I've never been where it really meant something."

Their most wrenching defeat the night before and a letdown loss in the afternoon had brought the Nationals to the brink of second place, the Atlanta Braves' breath on the back of their necks. They had lost Bryce Harper after a foul ball bruised his ankle. As the Nationals reached their most anxious moment of their halcyon present, they turned to a part of their recent past.

Lannan came up from the minors and delivered seven dazzling innings when the Nationals needed them most. After 36 hours in which nothing went right, the Nationals salvaged a split of Saturday's doubleheader at Nationals Park. After losing, 4-0, in Game 1, they edged the Braves, 5-2, in the nightcap and kept their lead in the National League East over the Braves at 2½ games.

"Most of the guys in this locker room felt like this was a must-win tonight," said closer Tyler Clippard, who notched his 16th save. "We needed to get one. If they took three from us right away, it would have been a pretty big blow. John stepped up in a huge way."

The Nationals have a chance Sunday, in the series finale, to stretch their lead back to 3½ games, right where it stood when the Braves came to town Friday. Their blown nine-run lead Friday night and a shutout loss at the hands of Ben Sheets on Saturday afternoon led to momentary panic. But Lannan hung tough after a ragged beginning and the Nationals cobbled together enough offense, capped by Roger Bernadina's game-winning RBI single in the seventh inning, his fifth hit of the day after he came off the bench to replace Harper in center field.