- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 27, 2005

Maybe Frank Robinson knew what he was talking about. Maybe the Washington Nationals really do play better against better competition.

This much is clear: The Nationals club that came out with a purpose last night during a 4-1 win over the mighty St. Louis Cardinals looked nothing like the one that slogged its way through the three previous games against the lowly Cincinnati Reds.

This Washington team made good things happen on the field instead of waiting for something bad to transpire. This team was aggressive at the plate, on the bases and in the field before an appreciative RFK Stadium crowd of 37,885. This team had a starting pitcher who attacked the strike zone, showing no fear against one of the most-feared lineups in baseball.

In short, these Nationals looked and played like a team still intent on making a run at the postseason, not one going through the motions on a death watch.

“I could see this was a different team today, the way we went out there and played, the fire we had,” outfielder Jose Guillen said. “I don’t know if that was just because St. Louis was here and we want to show something to them, but I didn’t see that fire when Cincinnati was here.”

Now comes the real question: Was this a one-night mirage or the start of something bigger?

“They came out there with a lot of energy tonight,” Robinson said. “It’s just too bad that you can’t sustain that and get them to understand that you have to take everybody the same way. … I’d just like for us to get on a roll with this type of approach with this type of energy, and we’ll take our chances.”

The Nationals will be taking a big chance this afternoon in sending rookie left-hander Matt White, just promoted from Class AAA New Orleans, to the mound to face the best team in the National League.

White, who has six games of major league experience and no career starts, will have his work cut out for him if he wants to duplicate Esteban Loaiza’s performance from last night. The veteran right-hander was flat-out dominant, allowing one run and three hits over seven-plus innings.

It was the kind of pitching display that was so common at RFK earlier this summer but virtually disappeared over the last month. It also came alongside the kind of clutch offensive performance that local fans had come to expect in May and June but have sorely missed since.

The tone was set from the get-go, when Brad Wilkerson sent Jeff Suppan’s third pitch of the game into the right-field bullpen for his 15th career leadoff home run. It’s amazing how much difference a productive Wilkerson has on the Nationals’ lineup as a whole. He reached base in all four of his plate appearances (supplementing his homer with three walks), changing the entire complexion of this club’s offensive attack.

“I’ll get my hits. I need to get on base to help this team win,” said Wilkerson, whose on-base percentage (.353) is more than 100 points higher than his batting average (.248).

Wilkerson’s approach rubbed off on his teammates. When Guillen led off the fourth by tapping a weak grounder just foul of the first-base line, he could have stood in the box watching. Instead, he took off, a hustle play that paid off when Suppan (12-10) inexplicably let the ball roll fair for an infield single. Guillen wound up taking third on Preston Wilson’s single, then scoring on Brian Schneider’s hard grounder off first baseman Albert Pujols’ glove.

“It sets a tone,” Robinson said of Guillen’s hustle. “This is what we should do. This is how we should play the game. Take nothing for granted. Play hard. When was the last time you saw that? It’s been a while.”

It’s also been a while since the Nationals added to a big hit with a couple more. They did it last night, when Loaiza followed Schneider’s RBI single with one of his own. And for good measure, Guillen made it 4-0 in the fifth with a triple off the fence in deep center field. He scored on Wilson’s sacrifice fly, though as he crossed the plate he surely was still muttering to himself about one more potential home run stolen by RFK.

“That’s another one that should be out of the ballpark,” said Guillen, who has 23 homers. “That should be number 37.”

With a comfortable four-run lead in hand, Loaiza (9-9) was free to throw the ball over the plate and let the Cardinals hit it. He did his part, the Cardinals didn’t do theirs.

One by one, this offensive juggernaut swung and missed at everything Loaiza offered up. At one point, he struck out six of seven batters, five of them on called third strikes. He finished with seven strikeouts.

Loaiza did get help from his defense, namely Johnson, who turned a nifty double play to end the first inning. With runners on the corners, Johnson snared Edmonds’ sharp grounder, stepped on first and tagged Larry Walker all in one motion.

“I’ve never seen that play done before,” Loaiza said. “Hit it, catch it, touch first and then tag the runner out.”

After surrendering a leadoff walk in the eighth, Loaiza gave way to a bullpen that owns a major league-best 1.17 ERA in August. The unit lived up to its billing. Joey Eischen and Gary Majewski combined to pitch the eighth. Chad Cordero then cruised through the ninth to earn his 41st save.

“Tonight, we went out and had fun. We hadn’t done that in a while,” Majewski said. “We just need to get back to what we were doing today and we’ll be fine.”

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