- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 17, 2005

The way the ball is flying off Vinny Castilla’s bat, he doesn’t miss the rarefied air of Denver.

The Washington Nationals’ third baseman last night belted his second home run in as many games at RFK Stadium into the Nationals left-field bullpen. In two games on East Capitol Street, Castilla, 37, has reached base every time he has been to the plate.

“How ‘bout that, huh? He’s giving us all something to cheer about,” manager Frank Robinson said of Castilla, who homered this time off Arizona starter Russ Ortiz. “Two nights in a row, real big hits for us. Maybe he knows something about this ballpark.”

Concerns over Castilla not hitting as well after departing the high altitude of the Colorado Rockies’ Coors Field have been unfounded in Washington’s opening home series. Last year he batted .321 at Coors and .218 on the road.

Castilla is two plate appearances shy of tying the franchise record for consecutively reaching base, set by Rusty Staub from Sept. 24 to Sept. 27, 1969. In his eight trips, he has been hit by a pitch, walked and hit two homers, two doubles, a triple and a single.

The Nationals’ oldest player is proving last year was no fluke. Castilla led the National League in RBI with 131 and set an National League record for fielding percentage (.987) by a third baseman. Washington signed him to a two-year, $6.2 million free-agent deal Nov. 16.

In each of the first two Nationals’ home games, Castilla went 3-for-3. Last night he had a home run, double, single and four RBI.

In Thursday’s home opener, Castilla had a home run, triple, double and four RBI. Castilla needed just a single in his final at-bat to hit for the cycle for the first time in his career, but Diamondbacks reliever Lance Cormier hit him with a pitch on the right shoulder in the eighth inning.

“It’s one of those things, I’m seeing the ball great right now, and I’m putting a good swing to it,” said Castilla, who is leading the league in slugging percentage at .935. “The [hitting] background is great.”

There was some doubt whether Castilla would be healthy enough to play in the series. During batting practice Monday in Atlanta, he injured his shoulder. He played but went hitless in two at-bats before Tony Blanco replaced him in the sixth inning of the Braves’ 11-2 win — the last game Washington lost before its current four-game winning streak.

Robinson held Castilla out of Game 2 of the Atlanta series Tuesday and Game 3 on Wednesday. But that was all the rest Castilla needed.

Said Castilla’s teammate, outfielder Brad Wilkerson: “It’s unbelievable right now. He’s a great hitter, no matter what people say about Coors Field this and Coors Field that, it’s learning how to hit and knowing how to hit. He’s hitting the ball all over the ballpark with runners on base, and that is the key to knocking in runs.”

In two games at RFK, Castilla’s slugging percentage is 2.667 — meaning he is averaging more than a double for every at-bat. After last night’s display, he has 11 RBI, three ahead of right fielder Jose Guillen for the team lead.

Last year Castilla hit the most home runs since he hit 46 in 1998 with the Rockies as he belted 35, but 21 of those came on the road. He has three home runs already this season, including the two at RFK, and he has continued to show he has power outside of the Rockies’ high-altitude home.

“Before, when I was young, [Coors Field talk] bothered me,” said Castilla, who moved up to second in the NL with a .452 batting average. “Last year nobody paid me any interest when I hit 21 home runs on the road and only 14 at home, and nobody mentioned how many home runs I hit away from Coors. People are going to talk all the time. Right now it doesn’t bother me. They can say what they want.”

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