Thursday, April 7, 2005

PHILADELPHIA. — It was a historic night for the Washington Nationals — their first victory. So why not add a little more history into the mix with a historic batting performance.

Brad Wilkerson — in just the second game in Nationals history — hit for the cycle to lead Washington to a 7-3 win over the National League East rival Philadelphia Phillies before an angry crowd at Citizens Bank Park.

It was a rare hitting performance for an even rarer occasion — a Washington baseball win, the first since the Senators defeated the New York Yankees 4-2 on Sept. 28, 1971 at RFK Stadium.

Of course, you’ll have to take my word for it. You couldn’t watch Washington’s first win on television last night and probably didn’t hear it on the ham radio system the team uses.

Reliever Joey Eischen will go down in the record books as the first Nationals winning pitcher, even though he threw to just three batters. Those had better be rare, because this is not a team that can afford to have its relievers winning games. That usually means scoring runs to come from behind, and this is not an offense that will do that very often.

It’s also not an offense that can rely on power to keep the team in games, as it did last night when Jose Guillen drove a two-run shot over the right-field wall to put the Nationals on top of the Phillies 4-3 in the eighth inning.

These first two games of the 2005 season have exposed your Washington Nationals as a painfully slow team, and a team that has to manufacture runs typically can’t afford to be this slow.

“We don’t have a bust-up type of lineup,” manager Frank Robinson said before the game. “We have to do the little things — the sacrifice flies, the ground balls — to score runs.”

The lack of speed over the season could expose this offense, but last night the team had the hits — and the heart it needed.

This game had all the earmarks of a second loss to go with Monday’s 8-4 Opening Day defeat. The game felt like Zach Day looked after Robinson took the ball from him in the sixth inning following Pat Burrell’s three-run homer.

Washington was down 3-2 going into the eighth inning, and showed little life offensively. Guillen ran the Nationals out of a scoring opportunity in the second inning when he tried to go from first to third on a one-out single by Vinny Castilla and was thrown out easily by center fielder Kenny Lofton.

On Opening Day, we saw the same out-by-a-mile outcome when Castilla tried to go to second on a single after Burrell bobbled the ball in left field. He could have done a juggling act and still had time to throw out Castilla.

They said Cool Papa Bell was so fast he could turn out the lights and get in bed before the room got dark. Well, a Washington National would have the power company shut off the electricity for failure to pay the bill by the time he got from the light switch to the bed.

But if heart were electricity, this Nationals club might have enough to run a power plant. Many of them have managed to play major league baseball under difficult conditions in Montreal (and Puerto Rico) over the past few seasons, and the scars they have from those dog days may serve them well in games like this one — games that feel like a loss to everyone in the ballpark except the ones wearing Nationals uniforms.

“There have been some negative things that have gone on in this organization the last couple of years, but we always went out there and played hard for nine innings every night, no matter where we were,” Wilkerson said. “This is why this team has a chance to win. We are going to go out there and play hard for nine innings.”

Heart, in fact, may be the most defining characteristic of this team.

“When people have asked me what do the people of Washington have to look forward to with this team — we don’t quit,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “We don’t give up until the very last out, and you’re going to see it all year long from us.”

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