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Nats' Multiplication Adds Up to a Victory

Nationals 3, Phillies 1

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 27, 2005; Page D01

It doesn't matter what they hear, or any evidence from past generations, including Frank Robinson, even if he is their manager, even if he has been in baseball for 50 seasons.

"When it gets a little warmer," Robinson said, "the ball will travel a little better." The Washington Nationals, however, are more than a bit suspicious.

Nationals starter John Patterson goes 62/3 innings, gives up six hits, one run and strikes out six at RFK Stadium. He lowered his earned run average to 0.98.

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"I want to see some evidence," outfielder Brad Wilkerson said, "before we say it's a great hitter's park."

The edifice in question is RFK Stadium, hosting its first baseball season in 34 years, and the early part of this season has instantly shaped hitters' opinions. Balls that rocket off the Nationals' bats typically travel to the deep, dark alleys of the old yard, dying in outfielders' gloves. Last night, though, Wilkerson and first baseman Nick Johnson each homered in a 3-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, providing the RFK crowd of 23,332 -- the smallest yet at home -- with something no one had seen from the Nationals, a multi-homer game in the District.

"You can't think about it," Johnson said. "Just go up there and hit it. If it goes out, it goes out. If it doesn't -- run like hell."

Prior to last night, that's what the Nationals had been doing, hitting just five of their 18 home runs at home while leading the National League in triples -- not because they're speedsters, but because of cavernous RFK.

So there was much to be happy about in this win -- the homers, another solid outing from starting pitcher John Patterson (2-1), and an admirable performance from relievers Gary Majewski, Luis Ayala and Chad Cordero, who recorded his fourth save by pitching a perfect ninth.

But when the Nationals face the Phillies today, trying to win their first series in four tries, they likely will do so without Johnson. In the third, he fouled a pitch off the back of his thigh, just above his knee. He stayed in the game for two more innings, but when he came to the plate in the fifth, "I couldn't push off." He struck out, and was replaced at first by Wilkerson, who hadn't so much as taken a groundball since spring training.

Robinson said Wilkerson will start today's series finale, but he's hopeful Johnson -- off to a fine start in what the Nationals believe could be his most productive season -- will be able to rest on Thursday's off day, then return Friday.

Fortunately for the Nationals, Johnson was around long enough to do his damage. His solo shot off Phillies starter Jon Lieber in the first -- which extended his hitting streak to 16 games -- tied the score at 1, and helped Patterson settle down. The 6-foot-5 right-hander from Texas had been dominant in his first three starts, and didn't allow a run in 20 of his first 21 innings.

The most impressive aspect of Patterson's outing last night, though, was how he handled what he didn't have, namely, his best command. "I battled," he said. He allowed the run in the first, and though he walked four batters -- as many as he had in his three previous starts -- he kept the Nationals in the game against Lieber, who came in tied for the major league lead with four wins.

"When you've got good stuff, and you believe in your stuff, then you can get by like he did tonight without his good location," Robinson said. "It should reassure him -- and other pitchers -- you don't always have to have your good stuff to win."

Patterson gamely hung in, scattering six hits, and even helped out in other ways, doubling in the fifth -- his first extra-base hit in the majors -- before Wilkerson stepped up to face Lieber. When Lieber threw his first pitch to Wilkerson, a called strike on the inside part of the plate, Patterson had a perfect view from second.

"I said, 'Oh my gosh,' " Patterson said. " 'He's pitching Wilky in.' "

That turned out to be a mistake. Wilkerson turned on the next pitch, an inside fastball, and launched it into section 470, the first shot into RFK's upper deck since the Nationals took up residence.

That set up the pitching staff to finish it off. With two outs in the seventh, Patterson got ahead of Bobby Abreu 0-2 before walking him. With Joey Eischen, the only lefty on the staff, having pitched in the last four ballgames, Robinson turned to Majewski for the key moment in the game: first and second, and left-handed slugger Jim Thome at the plate.

"He can hurt you at any time," Majewski said.

Yet Majewski, the right-hander, got Thome to bounce harmlessly to second, ending the threat. But don't think, after one night, that it's the Nationals that can hurt you at any time. It's still RFK.

"You have to really hit it," Wilkerson said, "to hit it out."

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