- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 9, 2007

MINNEAPOLIS — They’ve been playing major league baseball in this town since Calvin Griffith moved the Washington Senators west in 1961. And for the last 25 years, they’ve been playing it in perhaps the sport’s most unusual stadium.

The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome is unlike any other ballpark in America, a massive dome that works well for football but turns baseball into some foreign-looking sport. There are misaligned seats, the giant “baggy” wall in right field, the translucent white roof and low lights that turn routine fly balls into nightly adventures.

But above all else, this place turns outs into hits. The lightning-quick artificial turf field has long helped players pad their batting averages, helping scoot hard grounders through the infield and bouncing fly balls to the gap all the way to the wall for extra bases.

And there may be no team in baseball today that appreciates this funky dome more than the Washington Nationals. The club that has come to dread pitcher-friendly RFK Stadium made its first-ever appearance in Minnesota last night and reaped the rewards during an 8-5 victory over the Twins.

“It’s a great place to hit,” said left fielder Ryan Church, who picked up two of the Nationals’ 15 hits. “I didn’t think we’d come in here and change things, just ‘cause we got away from RFK. But it’s a nice surrounding to hit.”

Washington’s batters sprayed the ball all over the spongy green turf, storming out to an 8-0 lead and leaving most in the crowd of 25,144 in shock. And though things turned interesting late, with the Twins scoring five runs over the final three innings to make it close, the Nationals (25-36) avoided major embarrassment when reliever Saul Rivera recorded four outs to earn his third career save.

With his bullpen exhausted from overuse, manager Manny Acta desperately needed a top-notch outing from starter Jason Simontacchi. And though Simontacchi’s final line (four runs allowed over 72/3 innings) won’t officially go down as a “quality start,” make no mistake: The right-hander’s outing was quality.

“Outstanding,” Acta said. “Our bullpen really needed a lift today. We didn’t have a closer. We didn’t have Colome. So he gave us a huge, huge lift by going that long.”

Simontacchi (3-4) carried a three-hit shutout into the seventh inning before finally faltering. He put two men on in the seventh, then made his only mistake of the night in allowing a three-run homer to Jason Kubel.

But that was the only bad thing that could be said about his performance last night. Simontacchi managed to keep his pitch count down and became only the third Washington starter to make it into the eighth inning this season.

“You know what, I look at that the whole time,” Simontacchi said. “I’m trying to go nine innings every single game. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about that.”

It certainly helped that the Nationals staked their starter to a huge lead by pouncing on right-hander Carlos Silva (3-7) for seven runs in three-plus innings. They scored in each of the first four innings (one in the first, one in the second, two in the third and three in the fourth) to take a commanding 7-0 lead and never looked back.

The catalyst through it all was Cristian Guzman, who enjoyed yet another spectacular night to continue his torrid stretch at the plate. Playing in his first game at the Metrodome since leaving the Twins following the 2004 season, the 29-year-old shortstop went 4-for-5 and scored three runs. Over his last eight games, he’s hitting a staggering .556 (20-for-36) while raising his season average to .339.

“I’m happy to be in Minnesota playing again,” he said. “I know this is my old team, but I’m a National now.”

Guzman wasn’t alone in taking advantage of the hitter-friendly conditions inside the dome. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman had two hits and two RBI. Dmitri Young, serving as designated hitter in the American League park, had three singles and three RBI. Every other member of the starting lineup (aside from Ryan Langerhans) had at least one hit, and everyone reached base at least once.

“It was one after another,” Church said. “It kind of created like a snowball thing. We were feeding off each other.”

Sitting inside the first-base dugout, Acta thought he might actually enjoy an easy night for a change. Since the game was played in an American League park, he didn’t have to worry about pinch-hitters, and with the Nationals up eight runs, he thought he might be able to relax.

But before he knew it, the Twins had the tying run on deck in the eighth.

Rivera came on and killed the rally, but in his first game at the Metrodome, Acta learned he can never enjoy a night off.

“A walk, a bloop and a baggy ball away from being in trouble,” he said. “So it turned out I had to manage.”

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