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Nats Show Early Signs Of Support

Three-Run First Sets Stage For Offense, Hernandez: Nationals 11, Mets 4

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 25, 2005; Page D01

NEW YORK, April 24 -- The sun broke through the gray sky over Queens early Sunday afternoon, bathing Shea Stadium in light for the first time in three days. And then, something even more unusual: Washington Nationals right-hander Livan Hernandez walked to the mound to throw his first pitch, and the scoreboard showed the Nationals staked to a 3-0 lead.

"For any pitcher, when the team makes some runs," Hernandez said, "the game's more easy."

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Perhaps it was the unfamiliarity of the situation, but Hernandez promptly allowed three runs in the first. No matter. The Nationals smacked around the New York Mets for a season-high 17 hits in a badly needed 11-4 victory that ended a three-game losing streak and pushed them back over .500.

Not that games in April should be called crucial, but this one was significant -- and not only because of the result. In their first 18 games, the Nationals' total of runs scored in the first inning was three. They matched that against Mets starter Victor Zambrano, then went on to score in four other innings, going down in order only once.

"It wasn't a must-win game," Manager Frank Robinson said. "But for our mental psyche, we certainly needed it very badly."

So it was that when no offense had been seen in a week, it came like raindrops Sunday, the 11 runs matching a season high. Center fielder Brad Wilkerson and third baseman Vinny Castilla each went 4 for 5, with Wilkerson ripping his second home run of the season and Castilla stealing two bases in a game for the first time in his career -- in fact, more than he had stolen in the previous two seasons combined. Right fielder Jose Guillen, playing despite a slightly strained groin, drove in three runs with a double and a pair of sacrifice flies. And every Nationals position player had at least one hit.

"It seems when you score early," Wilkerson said, "it just carries on throughout the whole game."

When a team has 17 hits, it's hard to pick out one that might be the most important. But there were two distinct candidates Sunday -- Wilkerson's leadoff double, which put a runner in scoring position before the announced crowd of 43,313 had settled into their seats, and catcher Gary Bennett's two-out, two-run single that made it a 3-0 game.

"You saw how important it was" to score early, Robinson said. "If we don't score in the first inning and they go out and put three on the board, you're looking at trouble. You start trying to scramble and figure out how you can shut them down and hold them so you can maybe get back into the ballgame."

This way, the Nationals were already in the ballgame. In the bottom half of the first, Hernandez was riddled by bunt singles from Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran before Mike Piazza ripped a bases-loaded double to tie the score at 3. Hernandez continued to labor for the rest of the inning, walking two more batters. Finally, his 31st pitch induced a double-play groundball from Victor Diaz.

At that point, it was impossible to predict that Hernandez would provide what this team so badly needed -- a typical Hernandez outing that lasts at least seven innings.

"He was struggling in the beginning," second baseman Jose Vidro said. "No location. It could've gone either way."

But after allowing a pair of singles to start the second, Hernandez more than settled down. He didn't walk another batter, and beginning with a strikeout of Zambrano that ended the third, he retired 13 of the final 14 batters he faced. He needed only 71 pitches after the first, left after the seventh, and allowed the Nationals to do something they hadn't done for a week -- seize a game by the throat. They went ahead 4-3 in the third when Vidro scored on a double-play ball, and Wilkerson put them up 6-3 with his two-run blast on a fastball from Zambrano in the fourth.

That changed the way Hernandez approached his task. In his previous four starts, the Nationals had averaged just 3.7 runs.

"You're in front, so you can throw and not think a lot of things," Hernandez said. "You don't put a lot of things on your mind that if you go and miss one pitch, they hurt you."

Finally, it was the Nationals doing the hurting Sunday. Then they headed back to Washington for a six-game homestand against the Phillies and the Mets. "I think it's a huge win to get some confidence going back home" Wilkerson said. "Now we go back home for a week, and hopefully take care of business."

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