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On Second Try, Nats Get First Win

Wilkerson Hits For the Cycle, Guillen Homers: Nationals 7, Phillies 3

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page D01

PHILADELPHIA, April 6 -- All the pieces were there. The right fielder, acquired in the offseason because his former team was desperate to unload him, blasting the go-ahead home run. The third baseman, signed as a free agent even though others felt he couldn't produce away from Denver's thin air, knocking out four hits. The bullpen, which started last year by dropping 14 of its first 15 decisions, allowing just one of 10 hitters to reach base.

And the center fielder. Goodness, the center fielder. When Brad Wilkerson came to the plate in the eighth inning Wednesday night and promptly launched a pitch from Philadelphia Phillies reliever Aaron Fultz on a hop over the center field wall, the Washington Nationals had a bit of history. Check the scorecard. Wilkerson homered in the third, singled in the fifth, tripled in the seventh -- and there it was, the ground-rule double that gave him the cycle.

Brad Wilkerson doubles in the eighth inning, completing his cycle. He went 4 for 4 with two RBI. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)

The Washington Nationals would have taken their first win in any form -- ugly, lucky, well-deserved or otherwise. But the way this 7-3 victory over the Phillies came Wednesday night at Citizens Bank Park was right off some sort of blueprint General Manager Jim Bowden keeps in his office. Not only did Wilkerson add to the historic nature of the evening by hitting for the cycle for the second time in his career, but Jose Guillen hit the eighth-inning homer that turned a one-run deficit into a one-run lead, Vinny Castilla added four of the Nationals' 16 hits, and four relievers followed a serviceable outing from starter Zach Day by performing their job nearly flawlessly.

"It's gotta be a special day," Wilkerson said. "It's the first win in Washington Nationals' history."

Let the Bud Light flow and the hip-hop thump, because baseball players wearing "Washington" uniforms won a big league game for the first time in 34 years. The players assembled in the clubhouse -- the ones sipping those beers and bopping to that music -- understand the nature of the season, that it's occasionally arduous and seemingly endless. But a team can only win its first game representing a new city once. The fact that the Nationals rebounded not only from Monday's 8-4 loss to the Phillies but also from a 3-2 deficit Wednesday night meant something to these guys -- who hope it could become something of a trademark.

"We played a good, hard game," said reliever Joey Eischen, whose 1-2-3 seventh inning was good enough to notch the first win in Nationals history. "We came back. Hopefully, it's going to be a Nationals-style win if we keep doing that the rest of the year. That's the way we want to play ball."

For five innings, Day pitched like the Nationals want him to pitch, allowing just two hits. But in the sixth, with Washington up 2-0, he left a breaking ball up in the strike zone. That was enough. Phillies left fielder Pat Burrell turned it into a three-run homer, and the lead was gone.

Another loss? It seemed so. But when this unit played as the Montreal Expos last season, it didn't have Guillen, the talented hitter who became available in a trade with the Anaheim Angels because of behavior, not performance. When Jose Vidro led off the eighth with a single, Guillen came up to face reliever Tim Worrell. He lifted a fastball to right-center field -- the opposite way. He said afterward he didn't get it all. It didn't matter. He got enough.

"That's why we got him," Wilkerson said. "He's got some pop. . . . That was the biggest hit of the game."

Suddenly, the Nationals' offense is contagious. They have 29 hits in two games. More important, they went 4 for 13 with runners in scoring position, and eight of the hits went for extra bases.

"All these guys here have proved they can do it," Castilla said. "It's not like we have rookies in the lineup. . . . It's not like we do it for the first time."

Maybe not technically, like, say, when Castilla wore the uniform of the Colorado Rockies, for whom he led the National League in RBI last season. Or when Guillen was an Angel. Wilkerson, even, had hit for the cycle two years ago as an Expo.

But none of this had happened together. None of it had happened in Washington uniforms. The last Washington player to hit for the cycle was Jim King, in May 1964. Not a single member of this Washington baseball club had been born. And the Senators, as they were called back then, lost that day at Fenway Park, 3-2.

Wednesday night, the new Nationals won. When closer Chad Cordero finished it off by catching Chase Utley looking at strike three, he pumped his fist. It's just one win. But it's the first -- and the blueprint has been laid out.

"It's the first Nationals' win," Manager Frank Robinson said, "and that makes it sweet by itself."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company