Thursday, April 7, 2005

PHILADELPHIA — They are the organization’s two best all-around players, most recognizable faces and most marketable stars, a pair of talented outfielders who could become franchise cornerstones.

So it was only fitting that the first win in Washington Nationals history was made possible by Jose Guillen and Brad Wilkerson, two names that forever will be linked with last night’s milestone 7-3 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.

Years from now, when Washington baseball fans think back to this momentous evening at Citizens Bank Park, they’ll remember Guillen’s eighth-inning home run, the one that put the Nationals ahead for good. And they’ll certainly remember Wilkerson’s ground-rule double later in the inning, the one that allowed him to hit for the cycle.

Extraordinary feats on an extraordinary night for Washington baseball.

“When I look back on it after the season, it’s going to be a great feat for us — the first victory in franchise history, to do what I did,” said Wilkerson, who went 4-for-4 with a single, double, triple and homer (plus a walk for good measure). “More importantly, everybody contributed tonight. It was a great win for us.”

Wilkerson was right: There were several contributors to this victory, from third baseman Vinny Castilla (whose 4-for-5 night was almost an afterthought) to reliever Joey Eischen (who earned the first win in club history) to 23-year-old closer Chad Cordero (who finished off the game with a scoreless ninth and would have earned the Nationals’ first save if his teammates hadn’t added one more run in the top of the ninth).

But none rose to the occasion more than Wilkerson and Guillen, whose two-run homer off Phillies reliever Tim Worrell made Wilkerson’s cycle possible in the first place.

“The big hit was Guillen’s hit that put us ahead,” manager Frank Robinson said. “That really picked everybody up.”

The Nationals needed to be picked up by someone, because heading into the eighth, they appeared on the verge of another frustrating loss. Two days after dropping their opener to the Phillies 8-4, they found themselves trailing in the late innings once again because of Pat Burrell’s two-run homer off Zach Day in the sixth.

Burrell’s shot, off a hanging breaking ball, appeared to be a devastating blow to Washington, which had to that point been in control of the game. A despondent Day exited to the dugout, having squandered five shutout innings with a disastrous sixth that suddenly left him in line for the loss.

“I wasn’t thinking it was over yet, but I was frustrated,” Day said. “I wanted to win so bad.”

Two innings later, Guillen brought Day and the Nationals back, lofting an 0-1 fastball from Worrell into the bleachers in right-center field and turning a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 lead.

“Why do you think they bought me here?” joked the right fielder, one of general manager Jim Bowden’s key offseason acquisitions. “I just went up there looking for a good pitch to hit. It was a nice cutter middle away, and I was able to put the bat on the ball. The ball travels real well in this ballpark. I didn’t hit it that well but good enough to go.”

The Nationals, having now sprung to life, decided not to let Guillen’s homer stand alone. An offense that had been 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position through the first 1 games of the season, delivered a sudden barrage of hits, adding three more runs to put the game away.

The most memorable, of course, came from Wilkerson, who came to the plate with two outs in the eighth needing only a double for the second cycle of his career (he also did it June 24, 2003, against the Pittsburgh Pirates). Washington’s unconventional leadoff man immediately lofted a pitch from Aaron Fultz over center fielder Kenny Lofton’s head, bouncing it on the warning track and over the fence for a historic ground-rule double.

It was technically the seventh cycle in franchise history, the last by the Montreal Expos’ Vladimir Guerrero on Sept. 14, 2003. It was obviously the first in Nationals history, considering their history is only two games old.

“That’s what he can do hitting at the top of the lineup,” Robinson said. “I know a lot of people say you’re wasting him at the top. But when he does things like that, it’s not wasted.”

A few minutes later, Cordero struck out Chase Utley looking to seal the Nationals’ first-ever victory, one that may come to epitomize this club’s moxie.

“We received the fruits of our hard work tonight,” Eischen said. “Hopefully, this will become a ‘Nationals-style’ win if we keep doing this the rest of the year.”

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