- The Washington Times - Friday, April 15, 2005

Sure, the first pitch from President Bush — a high ball to catcher Brian Schneider — was special. So was the first actual pitch by Livan Hernandez — a called strike to Craig Counsell — a few minutes later.

But those were ceremonial moments. Memorable ones to be sure but nothing more than footnotes for the history books.

Want to know the real moment baseball officially returned to Washington? It came about an hour later in the bottom of the fourth inning, when Vinny Castilla roped a triple down the right-field line, scoring Jose Vidro and Jose Guillen to give the Nationals the lead over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The sellout crowd of 45,596 at RFK Stadium let out a roar unparalleled to any that accompanied the pregame ceremonies. The stands shook, the press box shook and for the first time in 34 years, Washington indeed was a baseball town again.

Make that a winning baseball town. Accomplishing what they could not 10 days before on Opening Day in Philadelphia, the Nationals capped off this historic occasion with a 5-3 victory over the Diamondbacks.

“For us players and for the fans who waited for a long time, you could feel the adrenaline flowing,” said Castilla, perhaps the evening’s brightest star. “It was an unbelievable experience.”

For those keeping score at home, that’s three wins in a row. And yes, you’re not dreaming when you look at the NL East standings this morning and see “Washington 6-4” all alone at the top.

It has been 34 years since Washington last had a major league team. When’s the last time Washington had a first-place major league team?

These aren’t, however, your father’s Senators. These aren’t even your Canadian half-cousin’s Montreal Expos. These are your Washington Nationals, and right now they’re playing an exciting (and winning) brand of baseball few expected from a club with a $47 million payroll and only a handful of recognizable names.

“The thing is, this team is very good,” said Hernandez, who put together a brilliant, 81/3-inning performance to earn the win. “There’s a complete package here. If everyone keeps working together, we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”

There may not be a lot of recognizable names on this roster, but you can bet that anyone who didn’t know Castilla and Hernandez before last night does now. The two veterans made sure of that with a pair of electric performances on an electric night at RFK.

Castilla pounded the ball all over the old girl, recording the first double, triple and home run at the recently renovated stadium and coming within a single of duplicating teammate Brad Wilkerson’s cycle from a week ago. He might have pulled off that incredible feat if not for Arizona reliever Lance Cormier, who drilled Castilla in the left shoulder on the first pitch of his final at-bat in the eighth inning.

The plunking drew a warning from plate umpire Jim Joyce and led to a prolonged chorus of boos from the crowd, which clearly believed Cormier hit Castilla on purpose.

Only a few hours before gametime, the 37-year-old third baseman wasn’t even sure he would be in the lineup after missing the last two games with a sore right shoulder.

Apparently, he was just fine. Castilla laced a double down the left-field line in the second, went to right field on his aforementioned two-run triple in the fourth, then launched a two-run homer off Diamondbacks starter Javier Vazquez (0-2) in the sixth.

“He looked like he hadn’t missed a beat,” manager Frank Robinson said. “It was a big night for him, him being the guy tonight and picking the team up. It was very nice and sweet for him, I am sure.”

Castilla’s homer gave the Nationals a 5-0 lead, plenty of cushion for most starting pitchers and certainly more than enough for Hernandez last night.

The 30-year-old right-hander nearly tossed the first shutout in Nationals history before finally faltering in the ninth.

The lone Arizona player to record a hit off Hernandez for eight innings was left fielder Luis Gonzalez, who reached on an infield single in the fourth. Hernandez (1-1) issued six walks (one intentional), but that was just about everything he was going to give up in this one.

He mowed through the rest of the Diamondbacks’ lineup with ease, retiring 13 of 14 batters at one point. And though he was tagged for a three-run homer by Chad Tracy with one out in the ninth, ending his night and spoiling a shot at a complete game, Hernandez was still given a standing ovation as he retreated to the third-base dugout.

“I feel good,” said Hernandez, who did jaw a bit at Joyce as he departed the field, apparently over a questionable pitch to Gonzalez at the start of the inning. “The team won, and I made my pitches. That was most important to me.”

With Hernandez out of the game and the Nationals clinging to a two-run lead, the pressure suddenly shifted to the shoulders of reliever Chad Cordero. The 23-year-old closer responded in kind, surrendering a two-out single to Quinton McCracken but getting pinch-hitter Tony Clark to fly out to center field to end the game and earn his second save of the season.

As Cordero and his teammates celebrated in the infield and fireworks exploded off the stadium’s roof, the crowd let out one last roar, the final affirmation of baseball’s long-overdue return to a town that had felt incomplete for 34 years.

“Forty-five thousand screaming people — that’s the first time I’ve ever been a part of that,” Cordero said. “It was a great experience. It gave you goosebumps.”

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