Friday, April 21, 2006

PHILADELPHIA — The champagne bottles were for their 70-year-old manager, a surprise gift to celebrate his 1,000th career win.

The way the last week has gone for the Washington Nationals, they might as well have been popping the corks for themselves.

The Nationals had reason to celebrate last night. Not only did they give manager Frank Robinson his milestone victory with a 10-4 thumping of the Phillies, they capped an impressive turnaround road trip, one that saw them win four out of six over Philadelphia and Florida to creep ever closer back toward respectability.

They’re not all the way back yet, not with a 6-10 record. But they’ve made significant strides to erase the memory of their horrendous start to the season, and now they’ll return to RFK Stadium for a six-game homestand that might feel like an eternity for this road-weary bunch.

“I’m seeing signs of this ballclub starting to play good baseball,” Robinson said. “We haven’t gotten buried on the road, which is a good sign.”

Robinson seemed more preoccupied with the overall state of his club last night than with his own personal accomplishments. When hitting coach Mitchell Page gave him a prolonged handshake once the final out was recorded, Robinson looked at him incredulously until Page reminded him about the significance of this win.

“Oh, that’s right,” said the manager, who improved to 1,000-1,095 over his 16-year career, 53rd on the all-time list. “The 4-2 road trip, that’s what I was looking at. I forgot all about it.”

The Nationals made sure Robinson didn’t forget about it once he made his way back to the clubhouse. A table full of champagne bottles awaited him — nobody put them on ice — and the entire team presented him with a new putter.

Said Robinson: “The next 1,000, I guess I get the full set.”

There were no shortage of players responsible for getting their manager over the hump last night.

First baseman Nick Johnson led a potent offensive attack at Citizens Bank Park, going 4-for-4 with two homers to cap a brilliant week at the plate.

Left fielder Alfonso Soriano further brushed aside concerns about his controversial position switch, making three leaping catches at the fence to the dismay of most of the 28,177 in attendance.

And pitcher Billy Traber made the most of his first major league start in three years, earning the win and perhaps a prolonged place in Washington’s rotation.

Perhaps no one could take more satisfaction out of this one than Traber, 26, whose path from former No. 1 pick of the Mets to fill-in starter for the Nationals last night was a circuitous one. Traded from New York to Cleveland before the 2002 season, he wound up pitching in 33 games for the Indians in 2003 but blew out his elbow in September, underwent ligament replacement surgery and didn’t set foot on a major-league field again until last night.

The Indians didn’t tender Traber a contract in 2005, then re-signed him to a one-year, minor-league deal. That made him a free agent this fall, and the Nationals scooped him up, quietly signing him to a major league contract in November.

A solid spring and a good start to the season at Class AAA New Orleans earned Traber the call-up to fill the rotation spot formerly held by Ryan Drese. And he’ll remain there for the time being, thanks to last night’s unspectacular-but-effective outing.

“At this point, I just want to pitch a good season, wherever I’m at,” he said. “Just be healthy and finish. As long I’m pitching somewhere and I’m healthy, I think I’m going to be happy.”

Traber nibbled around the strike zone a little too much for Robinson’s liking, issuing four walks, and he served up a pair of two-run doubles. But those doubles were the only two hits he allowed in 52/3 innings, and so he earned the franchise’s first victory by a left-handed starter in two years.

If Traber (1-0) can somehow stick around and enjoy some semblance of success, the Nationals will welcome him with open arms.

“He doesn’t have to go out there and prove anything or top anything,” Robinson said. “What I saw tonight is good enough to be successful up here.”

Of course, Traber’s chances for success increase exponentially when his offensive mates hit like they did last night.

The Nationals sent 10 men to the plate in the first, eight more in the second, scoring nine runs in the process. Traber even had an RBI single before he ever took the mound, comfortable with the 5-0 lead he had to work with.

Washington didn’t let up in the second against Phillies starter Ryan Madson, whose ERA was 2.77 ERA when he entered and 8.36 ERA when he departed without retiring a man in the second. Johnson helped send Madson (1-1) to the showers early, launching a two-run homer into the second deck in right field, only the beginning of his dynamic evening.

When it was finished, the Nationals’ first baseman had four hits, two homers, a double and a walk. That capped a spectacular week for Johnson. In his last seven games, he’s hitting .560 (14-for-25) with three homers and eight walks, leading to a .666 on-base percentage.

And Johnson claims he’s not even really locked in at the plate right now.

“It was a good night,” he said. “But the last two weeks have been off-and-on. I’ve never really felt comfortable.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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