- The Washington Times - Friday, May 20, 2005

They’re doing it without Jose Vidro. They’re doing it without Terrmel Sledge. They’re doing it without Joey Eischen, T.J. Tucker, Wil Cordero and Antonio Osuna. And for the last three days, they’ve done it without Jose Guillen.

The Washington Nationals opened the 2005 season counting on all of those players to make significant contributions, but who needs their services when you’re still playing your best baseball in two years?

A 3-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers yesterday at RFK Stadium was only the latest example of that. After a 5-2 homestand, the Nationals reached the quarter-mark of the season with a 23-18 record, the first time they’ve been five games over .500 since September 2003.

Now just one game back in the competitive National League East, Washington is on pace to win 91 games in its inaugural season.

‘This team has a lot of heart,’ manager Frank Robinson said. ‘They believe in themselves and each other. They feel like they’re going win every ballgame.’

Even if they’ve been undermanned in nearly every one of them.

The Nationals have been without the likes of Eischen, Sledge and Cordero for some time. That they’ve been successful in their absence no longer is surprising. But for more than two weeks, they’ve been without Vidro — their No. 3 hitter and veteran leader. And for the last three games of their four-game series with the Brewers, they’ve been without Guillen — their No. 4 hitter and most talented player.

Winning five out of seven in their absence is surprising, and it’s done wonders for the morale inside the clubhouse.

‘That builds confidence for everybody, knowing that you can still battle when you’ve got a lot guys injured,’ said Jamey Carroll, who continues to fill in admirably for Vidro at second base. ‘It’s promising and exciting to know that when we get these guys back, this team will be even better.’

They’re pretty good right now, getting contributions from any number of players to make this homestand so successful.

Carroll was just one of the key contributors yesterday before a boisterous, weekday afternoon crowd of 30,968. He recorded the Nationals’ first hit off Brewers starter Victor Santos (1-4) in the fourth, scored the first run on Vinny Castilla’s double, then drove in the second run with a two-out single in the fifth.

Since taking over for Vidro 13 games ago, the unheralded utility infielder is hitting .327 without committing an error in the field.

‘How ‘bout Jamey Carroll?’ Robinson said. ‘He always seems to be in the middle of things. It kind of goes unnoticed, but I think people are starting to get used to him and starting to appreciate him.’

Nationals fans have been appreciating Livan Hernandez since Opening Night, so it came as no surprise yesterday when the right-hander recorded his sixth win in as many starts.

This one might have been more impressive than the last five, though, because Hernandez was pitching with a swollen right knee that nearly caused him to miss his start altogether. Unable to drive off the mound the way he usually does, Hernandez (7-2) instead relied on his back-breaking slow curveball to record his biggest outs of the day. He departed after six innings, having allowed seven hits but just one run — on a sixth-inning triple by Bill Hall.

‘I do it because I want to pitch, but it’s not easy,’ Hernandez said of his balky right leg. ‘You get in your mind that any movement, you might get hurt.’

Hernandez’s six-inning stint was brief by his standards, but that was no strain for Washington’s suddenly lights-out bullpen. Robinson has so many viable options right now, he barely broke a sweat when Hector Carrasco plunked the first two batters he faced in the seventh.

Robinson simply turned to Gary Majewski, who recorded three straight outs (though he allowed one of the runners he inherited from Carrasco to score). Majewski, who has now thrown nine straight scoreless innings, gave way in the eighth to Luis Ayala. Closer Chad Cordero walked two batters in the ninth but still managed to notch his 10th save and lower his ERA to 0.95.

‘That’s what you call picking each other up,’ Robinson said.

The back end of the Nationals’ bullpen — Cordero, Ayala, Majewski and Carrasco — has a combined 1.91 ERA over 70-2/3 innings.

‘Frank knows he has a lot of choices in the bullpen,? Cordero said. ‘We can all go out there and do the job. Any time you have that, it gives each other confidence and your manager confidence.’

Robinson also has plenty of confidence in Castilla, his ever-reliable third baseman who seems to contribute something to every victory. The veteran slugger did it in all manner of ways yesterday.

His double in the fourth gave him eight game-winning hits this year (five more than anyone else on the roster). He made a pair of sparkling plays in the field and scored the Nationals’ third run on a passed ball in the eighth (though he likely would have been out by 10 feet had Brewers reliever Tommy Phelps not dropped the throw from catcher Chad Moeller).

Those are the kind of breaks the Nationals are getting these days, though. And if they continue at this rate much longer, you might have to start wondering whether they’re getting those breaks because they’re lucky or — as more and more people are coming to realize — just good.

‘Every time we take the field, we feel like we have a chance of winning. That’s a great feeling,’ Castilla said. ‘We’re playing great baseball. We’re doing the little things: hitting in the clutch, making the plays in the field. That’s what a winning ballclub does.’

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