- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2006

Veteran shortstop Royce Clayton wasn’t joking when he said first baseman Nick Johnson should be the player who leads the Washington Nationals into the future.

Last night was proof why.

Johnson hit the first walk-off homer of his career, off Tampa Bay Devil Rays reliever Brian Meadows in the 10th inning, to give the Nationals to a 4-3 victory before 21,515 at RFK Stadium.

With his 13th homer of the season, Johnson snapped a home run drought of 78 at-bats dating to May 28. He also ended a four-game losing streak for the Nationals.

“That was fun. You see it a lot on TV, but you never know what it feels like,” Johnson said of being mobbed at home plate by his teammates. “I’ve never done that before.”

The Nationals are planning to go with a youth movement, and Clayton says the club’s 27-year-old first baseman — who went 2-for-4, including a double — is an important part of helping develop the team’s young players.

“He’s a real vital part of this team,” Clayton said. “I know he doesn’t receive a lot of attention and a lot of it has to do with his demeanor, but when you talk about building a franchise, having cornerstones, or positive examples for up-and-coming players in your organization, I think Nick Johnson is an excellent example of that. His first walk-off is the first of many I’m sure.”

Closer Chad Cordero (3-3) pitched a perfect 10th inning with two strikeouts for the win. Gary Majewski pitched two scoreless innings of relief.

Nationals starter Livan Hernandez, who received a no-decision, gave the Nationals (34-48) something they desperately needed: a quality start.

Hernandez wasn’t pretty — allowing baserunners in the first five innings yet escaping trouble each time — but he was effective. Pitching in the low- to mid-80s, Hernandez used his guile to escape the jams.

“It was good to get a well-pitched game and hold the score down,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said.

In the third, Hernandez left the bases loaded when he struck out pitcher James Shields to end the inning. In the fourth, Hernandez left another two runners on when he got Aubrey Huff to pop up in front of home plate and Jorge Cantu to ground out back to the pitcher’s mound to end the inning.

The Nationals needed a solid performance from Hernandez, who made his team-leading 18th start last night and is coming off a win last Sunday at Baltimore.

The Devil Rays (35-46) took a 2-0 lead off Hernandez in the first. Carl Crawford, who went 3-for-4 with four RBI and three runs in Friday’s 11-1 drubbing, picked up where he left off by hitting a triple in his first at-bat.

Devil Rays center fielder Rocco Baldelli drove in Crawford with a liner to right field. Baldelli later scored on Cantu’s sacrifice fly to left.

The Nationals new-look lineup immediately tied the game in the bottom of the inning. Jose Vidro, who replaced Alfonso Soriano at the top of the Nationals’ batting order, walked to start the inning.

Vidro scored on Johnson’s bases-loaded sacrifice fly to right field. Rookie Ryan Zimmerman tied the game with single to left field, scoring Clayton.

Hernandez aggravated his right knee shagging batting practice balls on the artificial surface in Toronto’s Rogers Centre, and in the fourth inning last night he came up limping running out a sacrifice bunt, landing awkwardly on first base. Hernandez felt his knee pop trying avoid the tag by Cantu, who was covering first on the bunt.

“I didn’t want [Cantu] to hit me in my face with his glove,” Hernandez said. “I know it’s going to be close and something is going to happen at first base because I saw the throw and his glove was in the middle of my face. I tried to go to the other side of the bag and bend my knee and it popped. I felt it when I came back to the dugout.”

Michael McGowan, the Nationals’ assistant athletic trainer, checked him, but Hernandez still started the fifth. In all, he gave up three runs on 10 hits and four walks on 131 pitches over seven innings.

In the sixth, right fielder Jose Guillen hit his eighth home run of the season into the upper deck’s first row to give the Nationals a 3-2 lead. But the Devil Rays tied the game in the seventh when Huff hit a homer to right field that went off the top of the mezzanine scoreboard.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

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