- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2006

Frank Robinson sat in his customary seat in the bowels of RFK Stadium yesterday afternoon, his Washington Nationals fresh off a 10-4 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers, and offered up something not heard in these parts for some time:

Hope.

“We’re starting to play some good baseball,” Robinson said after the Nationals finished their longest homestand to date with a 7-3 record. “And it’s good for the fans. You have to play well at home if you want to think about having any kind of a season. We hadn’t been doing that, and it’s good to start putting it together.”

Was this really the manager who only 23 days before said he was “embarrassed” for this same team after it was pounded by the Florida Marlins to fall to 1-9 at home? The same guy who said fans would have been justified throwing garbage onto the field in protest?

Boy, how quickly times have changed around RFK, where the home team is finally giving its fans reason to celebrate rather than denigrate its performance on the field.

Since that ugly loss to the Marlins on May4, the day after Ted Lerner was named the franchise’s new owner, Washington has enjoyed a renaissance at RFK, winning nine of its last 13 there.

The Nationals took two of three from the Pittsburgh Pirates before heading back on the road, then returned home last week and won two of three from the Baltimore Orioles, three of four from the Houston Astros and now two of three from the Dodgers.

Suddenly, a team that looked like one of the majors’ worst is at least looking respectable.

“It wasn’t the losses,” said center fielder Marlon Byrd, whose diving catch with the bases loaded in the eighth helped preserve yesterday’s win. “The way we were losing was the problem. We weren’t playing a fundamentally sound game. We weren’t getting good pitching, good defense and timely hitting, and that’s what we’re doing now. We have to keep that going.”

Washington (21-30) still has a long way to go to be competitive. Even after winning five of their last six against quality opponents, the Nationals would need to go 9-0 on their upcoming three-city road trip just to reach .500.

That’s obviously not going to happen, but no one expects it to. Robinson isn’t looking for nine in a row from his players. He’ll settle for two out of three.

“We’re starting to win series, don’t underestimate that,” he said. “If we continue to do that for the next month, we’ll be in good shape.”

It will help if Washington continues to get the kind of clutch hitting that became commonplace during this homestand. Yesterday it came in the form of the home run, with three players combining to hit four off Dodgers pitching.

The big blast came from Ryan Zimmerman, who clubbed a three-run homer to the deep left-center gap in the third inning, bringing the crowd of 30,348 to its feet. The 21-year-old third baseman has now driven in nine runs over his last four games and is on pace for 25 homers and 98 RBI in his rookie season.

Zimmerman’s offensive feats often have gone unnoticed. The same can’t be said for Alfonso Soriano, who continued his torrid streak with a solo homer in the fourth. It was the slugger’s team-leading 18th of the season and 11th of the month, tying Henry Rodriguez (May 1996) for the franchise record.

Soriano has now whacked 11 home runs in 23 games at RFK, disproving the theory that players can’t hit the ball out of this stadium. And his teammates have taken notice in an attempt to follow his lead.

“Oh, it’s huge,” Byrd said. “You see him going up there … it makes you feel like, hey, we’ve got a chance in this park.”

Just ask Nick Johnson. The first baseman had been mired in a 1-for-20 slump before this weekend, looking lost and tired at the plate. But after studying some video of his swing, Johnson detected a flaw — he wasn’t flexed enough at the knees — and set out to turn things around.

And did he ever. He hit two solo homers yesterday to cap off a brilliant weekend series against the Dodgers: 8-for-11, seven runs scored, three walks and four extra-base hits.

“I just get down on my legs a little more, stop thinking about the other stuff and have better at-bats,” Johnson said of his revised approach.

Thanks to Soriano, Zimmerman and Johnson, the Nationals’ offense has been reinvigorated over the last two weeks. But let’s not shortchange a pitching staff that resurrected itself as well.

At the start of this homestand, Washington pitchers were giving up an even five runs a game. Over the last 10, they allowed only 3.7. And perhaps no member of the staff has rebounded more effectively than Ramon Ortiz, who yesterday won for the third straight time after failing to win once in his first seven starts.

Ortiz (3-4), who had a one-hit shutout going until the Dodgers scored three times in the sixth, has learned there’s more to pitching than 95 mph fastballs. Instead of reaching back and throwing with all his might, the right-hander is easing up and hitting his spots with more regularity.

“He’s becoming a pitcher, slowly but surely, in front of your eyes, instead of a thrower,” Robinson said.

And the Nationals, slowly but surely, are becoming a team worthy of its major league standing.

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

submit a question, go to the Sports Page


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