WASHINGTON -- After Bryce Harper provided Washington with a first-inning lead, the Nationals spent the rest of the game holding off the worst team in the National League.
Harper hit a three-run homer to back an effective pitching performance by Gio Gonzalez, and the Nationals beat the Miami Marlins 3-2 on Thursday night to keep alive their slim hope of reaching the playoffs.
Despite winning 11 of 13 in a belated run, the Nationals trail Cincinnati by five games for the final NL wild-card slot with nine games remaining.
Washington needed every bit of mettle it could muster to win this one. Gonzalez (11-7) worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the third and spied a runner trying to steal third in the sixth.
Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard each worked a harrowing scoreless inning before Rafael Soriano got three outs, stranding two runners in earning his 42nd save.
"I mean, everybody was out there. Gave me a heart attack. Check my pulse," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "Gio took it right to the edge, Storen to the edge, Clip and Sori topped it off. But it's nice to come out on top."
Denard Span went 0 for 4 for Washington, ending his hitting streak at 29 games -- one short of the Nationals record. He was bidding to become the 27th player to have a 30-game hitting streak since Joe DiMaggio had his 56-game run in 1941.
Span received a standing ovation from many in the crowd of 25,945 after he struck out in the seventh, his final at-bat. Although the streak is done, Span expressed no regret.
"It was unbelievable," he said. "It was like a roller-coaster, especially these last 10 days or so. It was a lot of fun. It gave me added motivation, to come to the field to try to extend it."
Gonzalez allowed two runs and seven hits over six innings to improve to 3-0 against Miami this season. He struck out three, lifting his team-high total to 186.
"The good news is we got the win," Gonzalez said. "It's a very important win."
Harper's 20th homer of the season came off Henderson Alvarez (4-5) and turned out to be all the offence the Nationals needed to improve to 12-4 against Miami, including 7-0 at home.
"I like being in those pressure situations, crucial situations of playing for the wild card," Harper said. "All year long you try to play for the playoffs and try to go to the next round. Now it's getting to that point where we're turning it on and playing the game how we should have played it all year."
Ed Lucas had three hits for the Marlins, who must go 7-2 in their last nine games to avoid 100 losses. Miami went 2 for 9 with runners in scoring position and stranded 10.
"I think that's good we're getting guys in scoring position, but at the same time we've got to do a better job of driving those guys in," manager Mike Redmond said. "We seem to have two or three, four opportunities a night and can't capitalize on them and really that ends up being the difference."
Miami went up 1-0 when Donovan Solano opened the game with a double and Lucas followed with an RBI single.
In the bottom half, Ryan Zimmerman hit the first of his three singles and Jayson Werth walked before Harper drove a hanging curveball over the wall in centre field. It was his first home run since Aug. 29.
The Marlins loaded the bases with two outs in the third before Placido Polanco flied out.
Successive doubles by Giancarlo Stanton and Justin Ruggiano got Miami within 3-2 in the sixth, but Gonzalez nabbed Ruggiano trying to steal third, short-circuiting the uprising.
"I say jokingly, 'I set him up,"' Gonzalez said. "I'm glad I got out of that inning."
NOTES: Jordan Zimmermann seeks his 19th win for Washington on Friday night. Miami starter Jacob Turner (3-7) will attempt to break a six-game losing streak. ... The Nationals acquired minor league pitcher Matthew Spann as the player to be named in the Aug. 23 trade that sent OF David DeJesus to Tampa Bay. Spann is 14-10 with a 3.03 ERA in four pro seasons. ... Johnson expects RHP Stephen Strasburg to start Saturday. Strasburg felt forearm tightness while throwing Wednesday and was scratched from his scheduled start Thursday. ... Both teams received a warning from home plate umpire Bill Welke after Alvarez hit Ian Desmond with a 3-0 pitch in the first inning. Johnson said Alvarez should have been ejected. ... The Nationals are 28-11 since Aug. 8.