WASHINGTON (AP) – Not one to let a perceived slight pass, Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson has ribbed reporters from local newspapers this season, asking why their baseball standings were listing tied clubs alphabetically, instead of putting the home team in front.

Well, on Monday morning, every sports section in the country had “Washington” atop the NL East, the latest in any season since 1933 that a major league team representing the city was in first place.

Despite a slew of injuries, despite few household names on a $47 million payroll, despite problems at the plate, the Nationals have morphed from the last-place Montreal Expos into a first-place team that wins the close ones, erases deficits night after night – and talks about contending in a division where everyone is over .500.

“It’s not a swagger. It’s a quiet confidence: Believe in yourself and believe in your teammates,” Robinson said.

“We have people here that don’t enjoy losing. It just doesn’t sit well with them. Not for a moment, not for an hour, but for a day, two days, three days, a week. They don’t like it, and they let it be known. That’s a real difference.”

A week ago, Washington came home from a 2-7 road trip. It responded by taking three of four games from Atlanta, then sweeping three from Florida, after trailing in every game against teams considered the class of the division.

“We definitely want to send a message to the rest of the NL East,” outfielder Ryan Church said, “that we’re here to stay.”

Overall, Washington trailed in 21 of 31 victories. Plus, the club is excelling in what Robinson calls “Tums and Rolaids games,” going 12-7 when the margin is one run.

One game last week encapsulated the Nationals’ season. After Atlanta scored four runs in the eighth to go up 6-3, Washington’s players returned to the dugout to rousing yells from Jose Guillen, who pretty much ordered his teammates to retake the lead. And just like that, they did, scoring five in their half of the eighth, the biggest hit coming from the backup catcher, Gary Bennett. As the go-ahead run scored, Guillen tugged at Robinson’s jacket sleeve, like a kid excitedly telling his Dad, “Look at that!”

“I just feel like we’re not out of it,” Robinson said, “until the last out.”

And so his team is building an identity, even if the faces keep changing. All told, 14 players have been on the disabled list, including the closest thing to a recognized star, second baseman Jose Vidro (left ankle), expected back after the All-Star break.

“That’s why this team is so good: They don’t rely on one guy,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “And they all know that any one of them can do it tonight.”

So Sun-woo Kim keeps the team in a game last week with 3 1-3 innings of scoreless relief in just his second appearance of 2005. Church, a spare part at the start of spring training, turns into the NL Rookie of the Month. Utility infielder Jamey Carroll fills in for Vidro, doing the little things right.

There’s solid starting pitching led by Livan Hernandez (8-2, NL-high 91 1-3 innings), and fantastic relief from Chad Cordero (career-high 15 saves, 27 strikeouts in 28 innings), Luis Ayala and Gary Majewski.

First baseman Nick Johnson leads the team with a .333 average and 33 RBIs; he shared NL Player of the Week honors Monday with Albert Pujols of St. Louis. But no other regular is hitting .300, and only four teams have scored fewer runs. No member of the Nationals was in the top five at any position in early All-Star balloting.

It’s almost as if they wait to see what the other club puts up on the scoreboard, then go out and tack up one more. Last season’s Expos went 16-30 in one-run games and finished 29 games back in the standings. Clearly, this is not last season.

Higher-than-expected revenues from ticket and merchandise sales mean Bowden has leeway to add players, though he doesn’t want to tinker with what he and Robinson consider terrific clubhouse chemistry.

That’s been tested in recent days by outfielder Marlon Byrd’s tantrum that led to contact with an umpire, and pitcher Tomo Ohka’s fine for turning his back to Robinson when the manager came out to remove him.

Still, the wins keep coming, even if Robinson knows what the calendar says.

“I’m proud of where we are. It’s good to be there,” the Hall of Famer said. “But this is June. We have to understand that. We have to keep our focus, keep our feet on the ground and our heads the same cap size.”

AP-ES-06-06-05 1745EDT

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