- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 9, 2006

HOUSTON — There was something familiar about the Washington Nationals’ 12-8 win over the Houston Astros last night. This remarkable victory, in which Washington stormed back from a five-run deficit in the first inning, sure felt a lot like some of this club’s biggest wins a year ago.

Look deeper, though, and there was something very unfamiliar about it. While the 2005 Nationals had a few comeback wins, they didn’t often do it against a pitcher like Astros ace Roy Oswalt.

And there’s the difference. The 2006 Nationals, with Alfonso Soriano and a healthy Jose Vidro, have the kind of lineup capable of producing these kind of comebacks.

“We have a better chance, let me put it that way,” said manager Frank Robinson, whose club hadn’t rallied from five runs down to win a game since August 2003. “It just takes a lot of pressure off other people with those two guys in there. It just makes for a better lineup.”

With Vidro and Soriano sandwiched around a healthy Nick Johnson in the heart of an order that also includes Jose Guillen and Ryan Zimmerman, opposing pitchers and managers are forced to respect Washington’s offense for the first time since the franchise relocated from Montreal.

“Everybody knows this lineup is good,” right-hander Livan Hernandez said. “When you’re on the mound, you know that this team is going to score some runs.”

Hernandez would know. Despite getting tagged by the Astros for five runs in the first inning last night, the Nationals’ ace battled back to keep his team in the game and give that offense a chance to do damage in the late innings.

The biggest rally came in the seventh, which began with Houston on top 6-3 and Oswalt, a two-time 20-game winner, cruising.

But Royce Clayton and pinch-hitter Marlon Anderson quickly got on base and knocked Oswalt from the game. Sensing this was his best opportunity, Robinson then pulled leadoff man Brandon Watson back from the on-deck circle and sent up Guillen (who was supposed to have the night off to rest his bruised left forearm) against Astros setup man Chad Qualls.

“He asked me how I was feeling,” said Guillen, who took a pitch off his arm in Friday night’s loss. “I told him, ‘Frank, I’m ready to play.’”

Said Robinson: “He is amazing. You don’t count him out.”

Guillen responded by beating out a hard grounder to short, loading the bases for Marlon Byrd, who then crushed a two-run double off the left-center field wall to make it 6-5. An RBI groundout by Vidro tied the game and ensured that Hernandez wouldn’t suffer the loss.

Two batters later, Soriano (who hit his first homer of the season earlier) belted another 0-2 pitch from Qualls (0-1) deep to left-center for his own two-run double. Washington suddenly had an 8-6 lead, and the same Hernandez (1-1) who gave up five runs in the first was now in line for the win, much to the astonishment of 39,324 at Minute Maid Park.

One more run-scoring single by Zimmerman capped the Nationals’ six-run inning and erased all memories of the disastrous start.

“It feels very good when you win the game like that,” said Soriano, who has quickly endeared himself to his teammates by batting .333 in the season’s first five games. “As soon as I got here, I felt like I was part of this group.”

Vidro, too, feels like part of the group at long last, his two-plus injured-plagued seasons looking more and more like a thing of the past.

These days, the veteran second baseman looks very much like his old All-Star self. He went 3-for-5 last night, raising his season average to .409. He clubbed a three-run homer in the eighth to put a definitive stamp on this victory. And he finished with five RBI, matching a career high.

“I’m just glad that I’m helping my ballclub to win ballgames,” Vidro said. “Other than that, I’m very happy that my health is the way I want it to be. I’m hoping to feel like this the whole season.”

Words can barely describe how bad the start of this game was for the Nationals. Hernandez, the ace of the staff, allowed six of the game’s first seven batters to reach. He served up a towering two-run homer to Lance Berkman (after Byrd was charged with an error for overrunning Berkman’s foul pop down the right-field line). He gave up a two-run single to Brad Ausmus and an RBI single to Oswalt and needed 43 pitches to finally escape the inning.

Plenty of pitchers would have been pulled from the game long before it got to that point, but Robinson has always trusted Hernandez more than other pitchers, so he let his starter continue.

“I do trust him much more,” Robinson said. “But it was the first inning, and I just could not go to the bullpen. I had to stay with him.”

That proved to be a wise move. Not only did Hernandez settle down and keep the Astros from scoring again over the next four innings, he also saved Washington’s relievers from almost certain exhaustion.

“It’s five runs, but you’re the starting pitcher,” Hernandez said. “You’ve got to go more innings.”

Thanks to those innings, Hernandez put his team in position to cap off a stunning — and significant — victory.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

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