- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2005

All Marlon Byrd wanted was an opportunity, something the Philadelphia Phillies weren’t going to give him. Enter the Washington Nationals, who took a chance on the 27-year-old outfielder, hoping he could regain his form from 2003 and provide a much-needed offensive spark.

So far, so good.

The Nationals couldn’t have asked for much more from Byrd in his debut last night. Making his first start in left field, he went 3-for-4, drove in three runs and paced Washington to a 5-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers before 26,606 at RFK Stadium.

Not bad for a guy the Phillies couldn’t wait to part with and Nationals manager Frank Robinson couldn’t wait to start working with.

“There’s a positive aura when you walk in here,” said Byrd, who was traded for outfielder Endy Chavez. “You know you have a guy who believes in you after coming from an organization that kind of lost faith in you. They’ve got that faith in me.”

Whether Byrd can keep this up and duplicate his rookie season, when he hit .303 with seven homers and 45 RBI, remains to be seen. For now, Robinson plans to start Byrd only against left-handed pitchers, with rookie Ryan Church getting the bulk of the starts against right-handers (though Byrd could start in right field tonight with Jose Guillen bothered by a sore rib cage).

Even if Byrd provides nothing more than a semi-reliable bat off the bench, the Nationals will feel like they got the better of Saturday night’s trade with Philadelphia.

He certainly proved valuable last night, driving in the first run of the night with a broken-bat single in the second inning, reaching on another broken-bat single in the fourth and then driving in two more runs with a double off the wall in the fifth.

“Welcome to the club,” Robinson said. “Tonight had to do him a lot of good, help his psyche. He certainly helped us.”

Throw in Vinny Castilla’s first home run in a month and Tony Armas Jr.’s second solid start in a week, and Washington had itself its third straight win. The Nationals (21-17) moved within 21/2 games of the first-place Atlanta Braves (who played late last night in San Diego).

Occupying the sixth spot in the Nationals lineup, Byrd didn’t exactly crush the ball his first two times up against left-hander Doug Davis (4-5), who shattered his bat both times. Still, Byrd managed to reach safely in each case: His nubber down the third-base line in the second scored Nick Johnson from third, while his fourth-inning single got past shortstop J.J. Hardy.

Byrd’s third hit — a fifth-inning shot off the wall in left-center — was more aesthetically pleasing and more important to Washington’s cause. The hit drove in two runs, gave the Nationals a 5-1 lead and all but ensured Armas’ first win since July.

“It feels great to go out there and help this team,” Byrd said. “You don’t want to go out there after the trade and go 0-for-4. You want to put together some good at-bats and show these guys that you can play.”

Armas (1-1) wasn’t quite as sharp as he was in last Tuesday’s hard-luck loss at Arizona, but he was plenty effective nonetheless, allowing two runs and five hits in seven innings in his RFK debut.

It’s difficult for the Nationals to make any substantive evaluations yet of Armas, who spent the better part of the last two years on the disabled list with a major shoulder injury, then spent the first five weeks of this season there with a groin pull. Robinson said he wants to see five starts from Armas before drawing any conclusions, but the Washington manager has to like what he has seen so far.

“He has the full package,” Robinson said. “When he’s on, he’s on. Sometimes, he’s tougher on himself than anyone else, and he loses his focus a little bit and tries to throw too hard. But it looks like to me he’s back on track. He understands what he’s doing out there and what he wants to do.”

Six days after his near-flawless debut against the Diamondbacks, Armas had to battle through a couple of tenuous predicaments, particularly a bases-loaded jam in the third. But he pitched out of that one having surrendered just one run, then retired eight straight batters before Carlos Lee finally touched him up for a solo homer in the sixth.

“I’m almost there,” Armas said. “I just need to build up a little more strength and show a little more out there.”

Gary Majewski loaded the bases with one out in the eighth but got Damian Miller to foul out and Russell Branyan to fly out. With closer Chad Cordero unavailable after pitching the last three days, Robinson turned to setup man Luis Ayala in the ninth. The right-hander responded by recording his first save of the year with a 1-2-3 inning, making his manager’s life a little easier.

“I can put three or four people out there,” Robinson said. “That’s very comforting to have.”

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