- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 6, 2006

He wanted to see some life from his ballplayers, and he got it. He wanted to see execution from his pitchers, and he got it. He wanted to see everyone wearing a Washington Nationals uniform take some pride in his performance, and he got it.

Nights like these have been few and far between for Frank Robinson. But when it does all come together as it did in last night’s 6-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, it makes the 70-year-old manager sit back and wonder.

Why can’t they do this every night? Why can’t they get a quality pitching performance like Zach Day’s seven shutout innings? Why can’t they build comfortable leads on the strength of two home runs by Nick Johnson? And why can’t they play like they care more about the team’s overall success than individual glory?

It sounds simple enough. If only Robinson could figure out how to coax this kind of showing from his players on a daily basis.

“It’s not that simple,” the manager said. “But it’s not as difficult as we were making it out to be. Now we just need to see this on a consistent basis, every night.”

Robinson hadn’t come close to getting it from them for more than a month, certainly not during the previous 12 games — only two of which resulted in victories. And absolutely not at RFK Stadium, where the home team had won once in its first 10 games.

So imagine how astonished the 21,059 on hand last night were when the boys in red and white took care of business against a Pirates team with the National League’s worst record (8-23).

The Nationals (10-20) aren’t much better, though they played like it one night after an 11-3 loss to the Marlins. General manager Jim Bowden described that loss as “the most embarrassing game I’ve seen since 1993,” when his Cincinnati Reds gave up four home runs to St. Louis’ Mark Whiten.

Robinson felt just about the same way. He chewed out his players after the game, then blasted them some more through the media, saying he wouldn’t have blamed fans for throwing trash on them.

Robinson promised the Nationals would play and he would manage better after Thursday’s loss, vowing they would show energy and execution for nine innings “no matter what the score is,” and his players took that message to heart.

“It was good that Frank got [ticked] off and really got pretty hard on us last night,” second baseman Jose Vidro said. “That was needed. Hopefully, we learned from that and we start playing better.”

Vidro certainly did. His first-inning double into the left-field corner scored Marlon Byrd from first and set the tone for the evening. Johnson, in a 1-for-22 slump over his last six games, followed with a towering, two-run homer to center. The ball had no trouble clearing the fence just to the left of the 410-foot sign.

That was just the beginning of a dynamite night for the Washington first baseman. He walked in his next two at-bats, then delivered the clincher in the eighth: a two-run homer to left, an encouraging sign given Johnson’s propensity for going the other way. Washington’s fans had reason to cheer for a change. Their team was winning comfortably, a rare sight during the season’s first month.

Just as rare was the quality performance the Nationals got from their starting pitcher. This was the first time Day had started a game at RFK since April 20, 2005. On that night, the right-hander tossed seven shutout innings against the Braves, one of the few bright spots in a season that saw him get demoted to the bullpen and ultimately traded to Colorado.

Much has changed since then. Washington is no longer a first-place club capturing the hearts of local fans. Day, on the other hand, might no longer be the strike-zone nibbler and underachiever who used to frustrate Robinson no end.

“He’s a year older, and I think he’s a little wiser now,” Robinson said. “Another year of experience. He has to trust his stuff, and I think he’s doing that right now.”

Day (2-3) did put too many runners on base during the early innings. But he deftly pitched his way out of the jams without ever getting himself into serious danger. Once he had a four-run cushion to work with, he buckled down.

The sinkerball specialist struck out Pirates catcher Humberto Cota to end the fourth and again to end the seventh. In between, he didn’t allow a single man to reach.

Day walked off the mound following that second Cota strikeout, the 10th straight Pittsburgh batter he retired, and was greeted with a round of high fives from everyone in the Nationals dugout.

“I pitched today,” he said. “I didn’t necessarily try to throw my way out of it. I pitched my way out of it. That was a big step.”

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