- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 16, 2005

Washington woke up yesterday morning with a first-place baseball team and a buzz about the Nationals’ home opener the previous night at RFK Stadium.

We all got a glimpse of how a baseball team can affect the mood of an entire community. People had a little more spring in their steps and more smiles on their faces.

It was a memorable night for Washington, the first regular-season major league game in the District since the Senators finished the 1971 season. But the spring yesterday and today would have been a little less and the smiles not quite as broad if the Nationals had lost.

The event may have overshadowed the game, but the game is what has people buzzing. A loss would have been something to forget because people wouldn’t want the good feeling of the night diminished by something as small as a baseball score.

But the 5-3 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks is something to talk about. And a win that puts Washington alone in first place in the National League East is something to savor because there may not be that many of them this year.

“It is a long season,” manager Frank Robinson said. “Anytime you are in first place — no matter if it is the first day or 10 days into the season — it’s nice as long as you keep it in perspective and understand that we haven’t done anything yet. Really, we haven’t even scratched the surface. But it is better to be there than trying to play catch-up.”

And winning is better than losing, which may seem obvious but still a nuance worth considering as we analyze the historic date of April 14, 2005.

“It just put the icing on the day,” Robinson said. “It was just a special situation where you wanted to win a ball game, and it was nice to be able to go out there and do it. It keeps the enthusiasm high.”

Robinson suggested that large crowds like the 45,596 who showed up Thursday night might not keep up if the Nationals don’t win.

“I just hope that the fans continue to turn out,” he said. “I know it has a lot to do with the way we perform on the field, and we will try to perform so they will continue to have something to come out for and believe in.”

Win or lose, though, they will keep coming, at least this year. There will be a honeymoon simply because it is baseball. And, as has been suggested before, this franchise will have three honeymoon periods over the next four years: the return of baseball this year, the takeover by new owners next season and the expected opening of the Anacostia riverfront ballpark in 2008.

What has not actually been suggested by reasonable people is that this is a first-place team. Are they? Ten games into the season, how good are the Washington Nationals?

“The thing is, this team is very good,” winning pitcher Livan Hernandez said. “There’s a complete package here. If everyone keeps working together, we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”

This team is a lot of things, but a complete package is not one of them.

The Nationals remain a slow baserunning team, a real problem when you have to manufacture runs. It is no coincidence they were tied for the league lead for hitting into double plays.

Run production is tied into that. The Nationals have to manufacture runs because they don’t have many big bats to drive runs in. One good major league manager once suggested that a team needs three 100-RBI players and three 100-run scorers to win something other than games.

Jose Guillen drove in 104 runs last year and has brought home eight runs so far this season. Vinny Castilla led the league in RBI last year with 131 and has driven in seven this year. If he can stay healthy and productive (he will be 38 in July), maybe he will be the second guy. After that, it is RBI by committee. Brad Wilkerson, who may have the power to reach 100 RBI, is not going to do so batting leadoff.

They may have a shortstop problem. The player general manager Jim Bowden has given the most money to, $16.8 million over four years, is batting .128. Cristian Guzman may get a pass for a while as he adjusts to a new league, but this is not an offense that can carry a .128 batting average for long.

But you can’t take away the fact that, even just 10 games into the season, if you can come off a road trip taking two of three series against division rivals expected to finish ahead of you (Atlanta and Philadelphia), it is worth believing just a little.

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