- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2006

Perhaps in time, the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles will look at their interleague rivalry with the same passion and fervor as their fans did this weekend.

For now, though, the Nationals aren’t making too much out of their series victory over the Orioles, one capped yesterday with a 3-1 win before 32,152 at RFK Stadium.

If anything, manager Frank Robinson said, this first “Battle of the Beltways” was about bragging rights. The Orioles might have a better record, a better ballpark and five decades of history, but the Nationals (and their fans) have two head-to-head wins in the last three days.

But a heated rivalry like the Yankees-Mets or Cubs-White Sox? Not yet.

“I’m telling you, this thing takes years,” Robinson said. “It doesn’t take three games. This is just a sample, really. This thing will build over time. It has a good chance to be a rivalry and a real good one. But let’s not try to force it in.”

Instead of a rivalry, the Nationals — who had been 14-28 overall and 3-11 at home — did find some of the energy and aggressiveness that had been missing. And perhaps more importantly, they rediscovered their wayward ace, Livan Hernandez, who pitched seven solid innings to win for the first time since April8.

Hernandez, mired in his worst winless drought in seven years, allowed only one run on six hits and flashed some of his old form in escaping a couple of dicey jams.

“It’s coming together,” he said. “I feel good, and I know I made a couple of people happy.”

Hernandez (2-5) attributes some of his newfound success to changes he has made in his mechanics with the help of pitching coach Randy St. Claire, but Hernandez also made a change in his in pregame routine.

Usually when Hernandez gets home the night before he’s scheduled to start, he goes to sleep. Saturday night, after Washington’s 8-3 win, he decided to shake things up. So he went to the movies. At 1 a.m.

It didn’t matter what was playing — he saw “Poseidon.” He just needed to try something different.

“It was a great movie,” Hernandez said. “Then I went home and spent an hour, then went to sleep. I woke up, and I felt tired, and I said, ‘OK, whatever. I’ll drive to the stadium,’ and I felt OK. I want to enjoy my life because I had a bad moment earlier in the season. I’ve got to do something different.”

Whether it was sleep deprivation or improved mechanics, it seemed to work. Hernandez threw a season-high 120 pitches and still felt strong after seven innings. He was energized, perhaps by his teammates, who supplied him with an early lead, thanks to some aggressive baserunning.

Robinson felt like his team wasn’t being aggressive enough during the season’s first 40 games, so he made a conscious effort to do something about that.

When Alfonso Soriano led off the first with a single off Bruce Chen, he stole both second and third, much to the delight of the crowd. Royce Clayton followed with an RBI single up the middle, and the Nationals led 1-0 lead.

“We had to do something because the last couple weeks have not been very good for us,” said Soriano, who now has 15 homers and 10 stolen bases. “So we had to make something happen.”

They did, taking a 3-0 lead in the fourth when Alex Escobar, Marlon Byrd and Wiki Gonzalez singled, scoring one run and bringing Hernandez to the plate with runners on the corners. Hernandez dropped down a perfect squeeze bunt, allowing Byrd to score and bringing the crowd to its feet.

It was one of several festive moments at RFK this weekend, something that wasn’t lost on Washington’s players.

“It was good to see the fans out there,” second baseman Jose Vidro said. “They were definitely big for us. … It definitely gave us big support. We need it. We need that energy in the stands to help the ballclub play with a lot more energy.”

The crowd roared with approval again in the fifth, when Byrd made a diving grab of Javy Lopez’s sinking liner in right, killing the Orioles’ best chance for a rally. Hernandez cruised after that, getting through the next two innings unscathed before handing things over to the bullpen.

The same unit that had turned late innings into a horror show was calm, cool and collected yesterday. Mike Stanton retired the side in the eighth, and Chad Cordero pitched around a ninth-inning walk to record his fifth save in seven chances and make the Nationals (and their fans) feel good about themselves.

“Win a series and play good baseball, I like that,” Robinson said. “It was nice. As a matter of fact, it was fun.”

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

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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