SANTA CLARA -- The Earthquakes just don't make it easy.

They came unglued in the final 10 minutes Saturday night but held off the Portland Timbers 2-1 for a much-needed victory in front of a sold-out crowd of 10,525 at Buck Shaw Stadium.

It took second-half goals three minutes apart by Victor Bernardez and Steven Lenhart and hold-your-breath defense at the end to provide relief from a dismal season for the defending Supporters' Shield champions.

"We're on the rise right now," said Bernardez, who demanded the ball for a penalty kick in the 55th minute.

The muscular defender punched the ball through in the lower-left corner to kick-start San Jose's first Major League Soccer win streak of the season. In all, the Quakes (7-9-6) have won three in a row counting an exhibition against Norwich City.

The result also marked the team's first MLS victory against Portland, which fell to third place in the Western Conference on a night when four of the top five teams in the West lost. San Jose leapfrogged Seattle into seventh place but has played four more games than the Sounders.

The victory was all the more impressive considering three stars -- Chris Wondolowski, newcomer Clarence Goodson and Alan Gordon -- are with the U.S. national team that plays Sunday in the Gold Cup final.

But San Jose didn't let the absences bother it against one of the league's best road teams. Portland (8-3-10) now has lost twice away from Jeld-Wen Field.

The scoring began after Earthquakes midfielder Shea Salinas stole a pass in front of Jack Jewsbury and charged down field. He kept the ball long enough in the box to draw a penalty kick when knocked down.

Enter the man they call Big Victor.

"I had confidence," he said through a translator. "The coach gave me confidence."

It's unusual to see a center back take a penalty kick over a striker. But with Wondolowski away the Quakes didn't have their top choice. It was the first time since May 2012 someone other than Wondolowski took the kick.

"When he hits it from 40 yards he tries to kill the keeper," goalkeeper Jon Busch said of Bernardez.

Not this time.

"The goalkeeper knows I hit it hard," Bernardez said. "I thought I'd change up."

Midfielder Sam Cronin noted the Honduran's confidence when the decision to take the shot was made.

"He wanted it," Cronin said.

The Earthquakes doubled the lead when Salinas found Lenhart behind the defense on a curving free kick five in the 58th minute. Lenhart toe-poked the ball past the Timbers' Donovan Ricketts.

But San Jose then fell apart with Darlington Nagbe's goal in the 84th minute. He got his sixth goal on a breakaway when the Quakes' defense suffered a lapse.

It took only another minute for the situation to get worse. Midfielder Marvin Chavez, just back from international duty with Honduras, got a yellow card for a rough challenge on Pa Modou Kah.

In a boneheaded move Chavez then interfered with Portland's free kick to draw a second caution. That led to his ejection, which means he will miss Saturday's match against Chivas USA along with suspended teammate Gordon.

"It hurts us," coach Mark Watson said of losing Chavez. "It's very disappointing."

Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865 and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.