- The Washington Times - Monday, April 18, 2005

At the start of the season, there was cause for rejoicing merely because Washington had its very own baseball team for the first time in 34 years. Now, as a wonderful bonus, we are learning that these Nationals might be a special team.

Just how special? As much so as the 1989 Baltimore Orioles, also skippered by Frank Robinson, who zoomed onward and upward from 54-107 in 1988 to 87-75 and hung around in the American League East pennant race until the final weekend?

“I’ll let people make their own comparisons,” F. Robby insisted after the Nationals completed a three-game sweep of the Arizona Diamondbacks with yesterday’s 7-3 victory at RFK Stadium. “I’m not comparing this team with the 1989 Orioles — and not with the 2004 Montreal Expos either.”

Robinson knows pretentious predictions in mid-April have a way of coming back to nip the prognosticator in the posterior. Yet after 12 games, the 8-4 Nationals are suggesting loudly that last year’s 67-95 record as the Expos was mostly the product of being unloved and mostly ignored in Montreal.

Certainly none of the 35,463 eyewitnesses yesterday at RFK Stadium would disagree. With their fourth come-from-behind victory, the Nationals were achieving a three-game sweep of the D-backs, winning their fifth in a row overall and reaffirming their first-place status in the National League East.

If there were better places to be in D.C. than at RFK, with its game-time temperature of 71 degrees and gentle breezes, they do not spring instantly to mind. Garden tours? Art galleries? Museums and monuments? Forget all that old-hat stuff. With their heroics, the Nationals are giving new meaning to the phrase “lovely spring day.”

Over the weekend, 116,002 fans turned up to watch the festivities at RFK, and yesterday’s throng had the 44-year-old ballyard swaying with their stomps and screams.

Before the game, the club unveiled its mascot to the waiting world — a pretend bird of some sort named Screech that — honest! — emerged unbidden from a make-believe eggshell in the outfield. This creature proved superfluous because the Washington ballplayers were doing their own dandy job of pumping up the customers.

For a while, though, it didn’t seem to be the Nationals’ day. A preliminary indication came when P.A. man Jim Clarke announced, “And here they are, your Washington Nationals!” and it took the starting lineup 10 seconds or so to clamber from the third-base dugout. Maybe the players were still marveling at the standings that showed presumed baddies like the Atlanta Braves, Florida Marlins, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets choking on the Nationals’ dust.

Once the game started, the audience got into it as early as the second batter, clapping rhythmically after Washington starter Esteban Loaiza got two strikes on Royce Clayton. Accommodatingly enough, Clayton grounded out. Loaiza fanned five through the first two innings, but in the second the Diamondbacks, those spoilsports, took a 3-0 lead when No. 8 hitter Quinton McCracken doubled home a run and Craig Counsell fetched across two more with a single.

Jose Vidro reduced the deficit to 3-1 with a sacrifice fly in the Washington fourth, but knowledgeable spectators might have been awaiting the lucky seventh because the Nationals had busted loose for seven runs then in the previous evening’s 9-3 triumph.

Surely it couldn’t happen again … but it did. Starting matters off, Vidro singled and Jose Guillen slammed a ground-rule double to left off Arizona starter Brad Halsey, heretofore nearly invincible. Pretty soon the Nationals were collecting six runs before three relievers retired the side. Nick Johnson tied matters with a two-run triple to right-center, and Brian Schneider put Washington in front with an RBI single. The Diamondbacks committed one of baseball’s worst sins by walking a .114 hitter, Cristian Guzman, with the bases loaded, and Vidro made them pay further with a two-run single.

Now the stands were really rocking, with or without Screech and his birdcalls.

At the finish, the Nationals were wishing the Diamondbacks a pleasant trip out of town and turning their thoughts to the Marlins, who show up here tonight. Florida will be pitching Dontrelle Willis, who shut out Washington last week and has an ERA of 0.00 after two starts, but Robinson was saying, “I feel like we’re due to have a good game against him.”

Or, presumably, anybody else.

“We can’t do it every day for 162 games,” Robinson warned, “but right now we’re doing everything right.”

Special teams, you see, will do that.

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