- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2005

LOS ANGELES — Several times already this season the Washington Nationals could have buckled under adversity.

There were back-to-back blowout losses at Florida and Atlanta. There was a shoddy performance in New York. There was a muddy RFK Stadium loss to the Braves and a glare-and-shadows loss to the Phillies a week later. And there were huge letdowns that accompanied serious injuries to reliever Joey Eischen and outfield Terrmel Sledge in the past week.

Yet in nearly every case, the Nationals not only fought through to win a ballgame. They did so in such inspiring fashion that more than a month into the season, people are beginning to wonder whether this team might just have something special brewing.

“I’m very proud about the heart these guys show out there on the field,” manager Frank Robinson said late Wednesday night after Washington defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-2. “They’re able to bounce back from a bad ballgame. They seem to come out the next day and start fresh like nothing happened the day before.”

Never was that trait more evident than this week at Dodger Stadium, where the Nationals overcame the losses of Eischen (broken right arm) and Sledge (pulled hamstring) to win two of three against what had been the National League’s hottest team.

Along the way, Washington also managed to overcome an all-night, cross-country flight that left more than a few players looking like zombies when they took the field Monday night, a rough outing by Zach Day on Tuesday that brought to light the strained relationship between the right-hander and Robinson, and a makeshift lineup Wednesday that included nonregulars Endy Chavez, Jeffrey Hammonds and Gary Bennett.

No matter. The Nationals came from behind to win Monday night, then did it again Wednesday night to leave town with a 15-13 record — far better than most would expect from a club that had so much going against it.

“Right now the credit to this team is that we’re not letting losses or wins affect us,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “We come out level-headed, and we’re having fun every night. Even around here the last couple of nights, we’ve been having a lot of fun, joking with each other. That’s the way it’s got to be.”

In other words, this team has chemistry.

Even during their vagabond years in Montreal and San Juan, the old Expos were a tightly knit bunch. But those who knew this club before it relocated to the District detected an even greater sense of togetherness when players started arriving for spring training.

Some of that was attributable to the organization’s move to Washington, which obviously made for much happier players. Don’t discount, however, the roster additions that general manager Jim Bowden made over the winter. Jovial, respected veterans like Vinny Castilla, Jose Guillen and Carlos Baerga have left their mark on this team, both on and off the field.

“There’s a lot of new players in here, and that’s important,” said Livan Hernandez, who tossed his first complete game of the season Wednesday. “This year is a little different. Everyone’s got a good relationship, and that’s important for the games. If you don’t have good relationships in the clubhouse, you can’t go make anything [happen] on the field.”

Castilla, in particular, has been a major plus for his leadership off the field and his sterling play on it. The veteran third baseman had everyone at Dodger Stadium raving about his eighth-inning “Web Gem” Wednesday night that helped preserve the Nationals’ win.

With two outs and runners on the corners, Castilla went far to his right to snag Milton Bradley’s hard grounder, then in one motion fired across his body to second base, hitting Jamey Carroll in stride just before Los Angeles’ Jeff Kent slid in.

“That was probably the ballgame, right then and there,” Robinson said. “It was probably the difference between us winning the ballgame and not winning the ballgame.”

Castilla’s sparkling play clearly fired up his teammates, who went on to win and depart for this weekend’s series in San Francisco with an air of invincibility through the clubhouse.

“We just feel like we can go out there and beat anybody,” second baseman Jose Vidro said. “I know a lot of people don’t think that way, but we really don’t care. We just care about what we think and we feel.”

Major league managers don’t like to try to draw conclusions about their teams until they are at least one-quarter of the way into a 162-game season. With a good two weeks to go before the Nationals reach that point, Robinson is being careful not to make any bold proclamations about his club’s long-term chances to contend.

But with each passing week with Washington still in the thick of the National League East race, it might not be long before people start believing the unbelievable.

“It’s too early to talk about the end of the year, wins and losses, playoffs and all that,” Schneider said. “It’s way too early. But it’s not too early to make this judgment: We are a good ballclub.”

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