- The Washington Times - Monday, April 18, 2005

They came sliding into home plate, practically on top of each other. First Jose Guillen, who got a late jump off second base while waiting to see whether Nick Johnson’s drive to center field would be caught. Right on his heels was Vinny Castilla, who took off from first base at the crack of the bat and never stopped.

And when it was over, when the two Washington Nationals teammates had successfully slid across the plate with no more than 10 feet between them, they hopped to their feet and trotted back to the dugout arm in arm as the RFK Stadium crowd of 35,463 bounced up and down in celebration.

“I wasn’t looking at Jose; I was looking at the ball,” Castilla said later. “And then I got to second base and saw Jose in front of me, I just followed him. That was a great play. We were just happy to score a couple of runs.”

The Nationals — and their new legion of fans — have plenty to be happy about these days. They’re living the good life after pulling off another come-from-behind victory yesterday, this one a 7-3 triumph over the Arizona Diamondbacks to finish off a sweep in their first series in the District.

Winners of five straight and eight of 12 overall, Washington is enjoying a magical run few outside of the home clubhouse at RFK saw coming when the season began two weeks ago. The Nationals will open a two-game series with the division rival Florida Marlins tonight still alone in first place in the NL East.

“It’s karma,” reliever Joey Eischen said. “I don’t know too much about the critics, but nobody really picked us to do anything. This team’s doing exactly what I thought it would do. We have a good team.”

If this keeps up much longer, the rest of the baseball world soon will take notice the way the locals already have. Not only did the Nationals draw 116,002 fans to their inaugural three-game series at RFK (an average of 38,667), they also managed to win over all those new supporters by taking all three games in impressive fashion.

“I’d just say to the fans, ‘Enjoy it, like I am, while it’s happening,’” manager Frank Robinson said. “But understand and be patient when it doesn’t happen. It’s not going to happen all the time. We’re going to look like an amateur team out there once in awhile.”

There was nothing amateur about the way Robinson’s team played yesterday. Though they trailed the Diamondbacks for the better part of six innings, the Nationals managed to keep themselves close with outstanding play in the field and clutch pitching when they really needed it.

No one was more clutch than reliever Joe Horgan, who came in for a laboring Esteban Loaiza (three runs, eight hits in six-plus innings) with runners on the corners, no outs in the seventh and the Nationals trailing 3-1. On his second pitch, Horgan got Arizona’s Luis Gonzalez to hit a sharp grounder to shortstop Cristian Guzman. Guzman, slumping terribly at the plate, wisely stepped on second for the force out, watched the runner back to third and then fired to first to complete the double play.

Right-hander T.J. Tucker (1-0) then got cleanup hitter Troy Glaus to fly out, ending the inning and keeping the Nationals’ deficit to only two runs.

“Give Guzman the credit for playing the ball the way he did,” Robinson said. “He had the sense to check the runner, keep him there and then throw Gonzalez out for the double play. That was huge. I think it really picked us up as a team, and it may have taken a little heart out of the Diamondbacks.”

It certainly appeared that way. The Nationals responded in the bottom of the inning with a six-run outburst not all that unlike their seven-run seventh from the previous night.

The tying runs came across on Johnson’s triple over center fielder Quinton McCracken’s head — with Castilla scoring right on Guillen’s heels. After a walk to pinch-hitter Terrmel Sledge, catcher Brian Schneider drove in the eventual winning run with a single up the middle off Arizona right-hander Mike Koplove (1-1). Guzman later drew a bases-loaded walk, and Jose Vidro followed with a two-run single off Mike Gosling to give Washington a 7-3 lead.

Eischen and Luis Ayala then shut the door on the Diamondbacks, each pitching a perfect inning of relief, making the Nationals’ bullpen flawless in three innings of work and ensuring the club’s fifth come-from-behind victory of the young season.

“This team never gives up,” Castilla said. “We’ve come from behind a couple of times already, and today was no exception. We know we can score some runs.”

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