- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2005

Three home runs. Another big night from Ryan Church. Some rare run support for Esteban Loaiza. And a clear-cut sign of team unity.

What’s not to like?

The Washington Nationals strung together that combination en route to a 7-2 win over the Oakland Athletics last night, easily the most convincing of their six straight victories. And though it lacked the late-inning heroics that have become so commonplace at RFK Stadium, this one certainly had its share of important developments.

Most obvious, of course, was the surprising offensive outburst on a night Loaiza pitched. Victimized all year by some of the majors’ worst run support, Loaiza (2-4) finally earned a much-deserved win thanks to a seven-run, 12-hit explosion from his teammates.

“The bottom line is winning,” Loaiza said. “And we won today.”

No less notable was Church’s 4-for-5, three-RBI night in which the rookie left fielder came a double short of hitting for the cycle and recorded his second straight clutch hit off a left-handed reliever.

“An exceptional offensive game,” manager Frank Robinson said.

And though it didn’t figure in the game’s ultimate outcome, the support the Nationals bench showed for Jose Guillen after their No. 3 hitter was drilled in the left hand by A’s reliever Keiichi Yabu proved just how close-knit this bunch has become.

“We have to take care of our teammates,” shortstop Cristian Guzman said. “That’s real important for the team, that they know we all have each other’s backs.”

Guillen, who might have upset the A’s when he grumbled about a called third strike in the first inning, came up in the fifth and was immediately greeted with a fastball behind his head from Yabu. The next pitch found its mark — Guillen’s left hand — and several Nationals immediately emerged from the dugout to back up their teammate.

No one from the Oakland bench moved an inch as Robinson took Guillen aside and got into an animated discussion with his star outfielder.

“Just two strong personalities out there trying to get a word in,” Robinson said.

Said Guillen, who has been hit by eight pitches already this year and is uncertain whether he will be able to play tonight: “I know it looked like we were fighting. I was just mad that he wanted to take me out [of the game].”

Guillen remained in until the eighth, when his hand became too swollen for him to squeeze his glove. Anyone among the crowd of 28,749 hoping for some retaliation before then was sorely disappointed.

They say, though, that the best revenge is living well, and Washington clearly is doing that right now.

With last night’s win, the Nationals improved to a season-high seven games over .500 (33-26). They continued to sit alone in first place in the National League East. They’re now 20-9 at RFK, one of the majors’ best home records, and have come from behind in their last nine wins.

“I’ve never been on a team like this where the confidence is so high,” center fielder Brad Wilkerson said.

If they keep hitting three home runs a night, the Nationals figure to win plenty more games at RFK before this season is over. For weeks now, Robinson has been insisting the ball would start flying out of this cavernous ballpark once the weather started warming up. Few believed him, including his own players, some of whom even questioned whether RFK’s measurements (380 feet in the gaps, 410 feet to center field) were accurate.

But if last night (game-time temperature: 89 degrees) was any indication, Robinson may have been right all along. The two teams combined to hit four home runs, one a towering shot to straightaway center field by Oakland’s Bobby Crosby in the first inning that caught everyone by surprise.

“It was hit hard. But I didn’t know it was hit that hard,” Loaiza said. “I haven’t seen that many home runs hit to center field, especially at this ballpark.”

The Nationals had an answer for the Crosby homer, though. Actually, they had three of them and nearly four.

Church got things started when he turned on a 2-2 pitch from Ryan Glynn (0-2) in the third and drilled it over the right-field fence for his fifth homer. Carlos Baerga nearly joined the act in the fourth, sending a line drive off the top of the wall that even prompted the stadium crew to set off fireworks. Moments later, Brian Schneider earned his fireworks with a two-run homer to right-center to give Washington a 4-2 lead.

The Nationals were only getting started. Church roped a two-run triple off Ricardo Rincon in the sixth, giving Robinson even more reason to consider starting the rookie full time. In his last two at-bats against left-handers, Church has a homer, a triple and five RBI.

“He’s gaining confidence,” Robinson said. “He’s hitting left-handers. What he’s showing me is when they do make mistakes, he has a chance to be successful.”

And if all that wasn’t enough, Vinny Castilla capped the night with a solo homer to left-center in the seventh. That put the Nationals up 7-2 and left them itching to come back out to RFK tonight in search of a sweep.

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