- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 22, 2006

The stands were packed, the new owners were in attendance and the home team delivered with a dramatic victory.

Maybe this really does signal a new era for the Washington Nationals.

They couldn’t have scripted a better story line last night in a 7-6 thriller over the Chicago Cubs.

A crowd of 35,442 poured through the gates at a “new-look” RFK Stadium, with Nationals players, coaches and executives greeting them with handshakes and gifts. Around 10 p.m., word came down that the final paperwork between the Lerner family and Major League Baseball has been filed and the transfer of ownership will take place Monday morning.

And then to top it all off, the Nationals rallied from two runs down in the eighth to topple the Cubs, with center fielder Alex Escobar driving in the tying and go-ahead runs on a two-out single to cap a monumental day for the club.

“It is a very significant day for this organization, this franchise and the team itself,” manager Frank Robinson said. “The uncertainty has been cleared away.”

And the Nationals (41-56) found a way to win a tight ballgame for a change.

They looked poised to blow it. Despite taking a 4-3 lead into the seventh, relievers Mike Stanton and Kevin Gryboski gave it back and then some, with Aramis Ramirez clubbing his second towering homer of the game — a two-run shot into the mezzanine above left-center field to put the Cubs on top 6-4.

But Washington stormed back to win for only the third time in 10 games. Alfonso Soriano and Marlon Anderson rapped a pair of one-out singles in the eighth off Chicago reliever Bob Howry, and Soriano stole third, allowing him to score moments later on Ryan Zimmerman’s sacrifice fly down the first-base line.

When Nick Johnson singled to center, the stage was set for Escobar to add another clutch hit to his fast-growing resume. The journeyman outfielder delivered, lining a slider from Howry (3-3) into the left-field corner. Anderson scored from third, Johnson scored all the way from first and Escobar … well, he was hunched over at first base in pain.

Turns out he strained his right hamstring coming out of the batter’s box, another setback for a once-promising player who has been beset by injuries his entire career.

So while the rest of the Nationals and a stadium full of jubilant fans were celebrating the dramatic hit, Escobar (owner of a .415 batting average in 12 games this season) wasn’t even thinking about rejoicing.

“Not really. I’m enjoying it right now, because we got the win,” he said. “But at the moment, it was very frustrating. It was very painful at that moment.”

Painful not only for Escobar, who is day-to-day with this latest injury. In the Washington dugout, Robinson went from ecstasy to dejection in the time it took to shift his eyes from home plate to first base.

“You’re feeling good, and you turn and look at first base, and [coach Davey] Lopes is bent over and [Escobar] is bent over,” Robinson said. “That kind of takes a little of the joy away from the moment. You feel for him. All of sudden, it’s like here we go again. … It’s a darn shame this kid has had these problems and can’t give himself a real, good shot.”

Escobar’s injury couldn’t put a complete damper on an otherwise positive night for the Nationals. Players arrived at the refurbished RFK grateful for some nice additions to the home clubhouse, including new carpeting and a plasma television. Fans arrived grateful for the new choices of concessions, cleaner concourses and the site of Washington players at the turnstiles.

“I think that all made for a very festive evening,” said Robinson, who spent an hour greeting fans. “It got the crowd into a good mood before the game even started. It carried right over. … It was kind of a different mood tonight.”

The Nationals gave those fans something to cheer about early on, jumping out to a 4-1 lead after two innings by taking advantage of wildly ineffective Cubs starter Mark Prior. The right-hander, activated off the disabled list earlier in the day from a strained oblique injury, walked three, hit two batters and uncorked two wild pitches.

His counterpart, veteran Pedro Astacio, was far more effective, allowing three runs over 61/3 quality innings to put himself in line for the win until Washington’s bullpen blew it in the three-run seventh.

But this is the new-look RFK and these are the new-look Nationals. So instead of wilting after blowing the lead, they gave all those in attendance (the fans, the players, the new owners) reason to believe the worst is behind them and better days are ahead.

“You always feed off the fans,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “It was good to see them. It was a great game for the fans. Hopefully they keep coming out.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the https://www.washingtontimes.com/sports>Sports Page

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