- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 10, 2005

HOUSTON — One by one, they went sailing out of Minute Maid Park, each more astonishing than the last.

Brad Wilkerson: Crack! Brian Schneider: Smack! Brandon Watson: Thwack! Vinny Castilla: Hit the road, Jack!

What a sight for the Washington Nationals, heretofore known as the majors’ worst home run-hitting club.

Not last night. The Nationals put on a fireworks display at this bandbox of a ballpark, pounding out a season high four homers and hanging on for dear life to beat the Houston Astros 6-5 in the first game of their season’s most-important series.

“We feel like we have enough talent in this clubhouse to score runs,” Wilkerson said. “We proved that tonight.”

Not since Aug. 25, 2004, had this franchise (then the Montreal Expos) hit four homers in a single game. This current bunch couldn’t have picked a better time to do it.

The rare power surge moved Washington (59-53) back within a game of the Astros in the National League wild-card race. More importantly, it served as a confidence booster for a club that sorely needed one after a 1-5 homestand.

There’s still plenty of work to be done on this 13-game road trip, and there’s still plenty of opportunity for disaster. But if only for one night, the Nationals got to feel like pennant contenders again.

“We know this road trip’s going to be make or break for the season,” Wilkerson said. “We needed something positive to happen. It’s a very good night for us.”

Even though the Nationals were forced to sweat it out before they could comfortably say that.

Seemingly on cruise control after opening up a 6-1 lead in the fifth inning, Washington let the Astros storm right back to make a game of it. Starter John Patterson, pitching a couple of hours down the road from his hometown of Orange, Texas, served up his second home run of the night to Houston third baseman Morgan Ensberg. The two-run blast made it 6-3 and set the stage for a wild sixth inning.

Patterson (6-3) had two outs and runners on first and second when he got Willy Taveras to tap a bouncer to shortstop. Cristian Guzman had to hesitate to flip the ball to a late-arriving Jose Vidro, and umpire Wally Bell called runner Eric Bruntlett safe on the bang-bang play. Nationals manager Frank Robinson came screaming out of the dugout to argue, and replays appeared to reveal he had a case.

Robinson could only shake his head in disbelief at what happened next. Reliever Luis Ayala got Craig Biggio to hit a nearly identical grounder to short, only this time the hesitant Guzman bounced his throw to first — a two-run error that made it 6-5. It was one of several shaky plays in the field by what looked like a tight Nationals group.

“It was good enough,” Robinson said. “I’m not going to sit here and battle over what wasn’t. We won a ballgame tonight, that’s the main thing. We won a ballgame.”

That’s because Washington bullpen somehow found a way to record the game’s final 10 outs without surrendering another run. Ayala got out of the sixth, Mike Stanton got out of the seventh, Houston native Gary Majewski recorded two outs in the eighth but gave way to closer Chad Cordero to get out of a first-and-third jam.

Cordero did, inducing a popout from Biggio. He then closed out the ninth to ensure a well-earned 37th save and snap Washington’s 13-game losing streak in one-run contests, much to the relief of some nervous personnel in the Nationals’ dugout.

“The way things had gone tonight, I was a little nervous,” Patterson said.

The way the night played out, it was a good thing the Nationals staked the pitching staff to such a nice, early lead.

They did so in most unlikely fashion: by hitting the ball out of the park — a concept that has evaded them all season. They entered with only 77 homers in 111 games, by far the majors’ lowest total.

If ever there was a ballpark to reverse that trend in, this is it. With short porches down both lines, the former Enron Field is a hitter’s dream. So it was that Wilkerson started things off last night with a solo home run to right in the second, his eighth of the year.

Washington added two more runs in the third off Houston’s Ezequiel Astacio without benefit of the long ball but returned to the big hit an inning later. Schneider drilled a first-pitch fastball from Astacio (2-5) to right for a solo homer. Moments later, Watson became the fourth player in franchise history to homer in his big league debut. The slight, 23-year-old outfielder went the other way and deposited the ball into the left-field Crawford Boxes to make it 5-1, though he was too busy racing toward first base to realize it.

“I was running. I didn’t even stop when it went out,” said Watson, who had both the home run ball and the ball with which he recorded his first career hit waiting for him inside his locker.

Just for good measure, Castilla added a homer of his own in the fifth — a deep drive to left that hardly seemed necessary at the time but proved vital by the end of this tense night.

“I think we were all right,” Schneider said. “It’s not like we’re not used to one-run games.”

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