"We would have lost this game last year," said Adam Dunn. "It seems like we're finding ways to win close games that in the past we would have lost."
Reliever Tyler Clippard, called on to get the last out of the seventh after Sean Burnett had walked speedy Cameron Maybin on four pitches, instead gave up a 3-2 lead when Gaby Sanchez lofted a two-run homer to left. Willingham retaliated with a solo shot leading off the bottom of the inning to tie it at 4.
Clippard (5-0) got through the eighth in order before the Nationals rallied in improbable fashion, parlaying a series of Florida mistakes into a hard-earned run.
The start of Florida's downfall seemed harmless enough -- Marlins reliever Burke Badenhop (0-4) threw a 1-0 inside fastball to Ian Desmond. The pitch grazed Desmond's jersey above the belt line -- "No skin, all jersey," Desmond said -- and Washington had the go-ahead run on base.
Cristian Guzman, trying to give himself up and advance the runner, laid down a perfectly placed bunt to the first-base side of the mound. Sanchez charged from first and got to it, but threw wide of second baseman Dan Uggla covering first, putting runners at second and third with none down.
Nyjer Morgan pinch-hit for Clippard and hit a sharp grounder that Sanchez cleanly gloved off first base. The Marlins intentionally walked Ryan Zimmerman to load the bases, hoping for an inning-ending double play, and Florida manager Fredi Gonzalez summoned Renyel Pinto to relieve Badenhop.
Pinto got two quick strikes on Dunn, who was 0-for-3 against Marlins starter Josh Johnson, before Dunn took a ball and fouled off a pitch. Then, Pinto's changeup didn't break, running in on Dunn, who couldn't get out of the way before the ball struck his shoulder, forcing home the winning run.
"If it's close, I'm not going to just sit there and take it, as bad as it sounds," Dunn said. "I think it's kind of a sissy way to do it. But that was a tough one to get out of the way of."
Pinto exited in favor of Brian Sanches, who got the final two outs. Matt Capps let the Marlins get the potential tying run on base in the ninth -- Dunn couldn't hold onto Zimmerman's throw from third on pinch-hitter Chris Coghlan's grounder -- before getting Bryan Petersen to hit into a fielder's choice and striking out pinch-hitter Wes Helms to earn his 12th save in as many chances.
"We're resilient out there. ... We're fighting all the way to the end," Capps said. "Even the games we haven't come out on top of, we've been in situations in the seventh, eighth, ninth innings to win those ballgames. ... It's just a matter of putting it together and maybe a thing or two will go our way."
And, perhaps, changing the culture produced by back-to-back 100-loss seasons.
"You're not waiting for something bad to happen," Dunn said. "It seemed like last year, in a lot of situations, the feeling [was], 'What's going to happen now? Something bad's going to happen.' This year, it's ... the opposite. Something good's going to happen. We just don't know when or how."
The Nationals got a boost from Chico, who was recalled from Double-A Harrisburg on Saturday morning to start in place of left-hander John Lannan, whose turn was skipped because of a sore elbow. Chico hadn't pitched in a Major League game since May 21, 2008, after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his left elbow.
Chico tossed five scoreless innings before the Marlins opened the sixth by stringing together three successive hits, Jorge Cantu's double down the left-field line getting Florida within two at 3-1.
Chico's first pitch of the afternoon hit Maybin on the back foot, an inauspicious start that was quickly overcome. Chico got through his outing having allowed just two runs on six hits in five-plus innings. He walked none and struck out three.
"That first pitch, all the nerves started coming back," Chico said. "It felt like my first big league game again. I just tried to brush it back and go after the next guy. After that, it was let's go at 'em and just try to get a ground ball."
Once he settled his nerves, Chico settled in.
"It's been it seems like forever since I've been up here," said Chico, who after the game said he was returning to Harrisburg -- though the Nationals didn't announce a postgame move. "To get back up here kind of is a milestone for me. I felt strong. I got some pitches that got away from me a little bit, unfortunately gave up some hits. It was one of those where I felt really strong throughout the whole game and didn't feel any weakness."
Willingham hit a two-out RBI triple in the fourth and Harris followed with his third homer, a shot to right field off Johnson. The right-hander allowed six hits and three runs in six innings, didn't issue a walk and struck out five.