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Mike Wise

An Adaptable Player, Right Down to His Nickname

By Mike Wise
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page D09


Brad Wilkerson is unpretentious, his muscles undefined. His nickname, "Wilky," and his stubby frame connote more free time than free weights. Versatile, pliant, Wilkerson changes positions and his spot in the lineup more than Manager Frank Robinson changes pitchers.

More than any other Washington National, he embodies the chameleon-like qualities of his franchise. It moved cities and countries in a matter of months because that's what baseball needed; Wilkerson moved to leadoff and center field because that's what Robinson needed.

"Not trying to hit it out of the park is the key for me," Nationals everyman Brad Wilkerson said. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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"I just go where they want and do what they want, that's my job," said Wilkerson, who on a historic Wednesday night also hit the ball where the Nationals wanted.

A chubby-cheeked Kentuckian made two kinds of history on Wednesday night. He clubbed a single, double, triple and home run in the same game for the second time in his career -- a 7-3 scrapbook of a victory for the Nationals over the Philadelphia Phillies.

Wilkerson and Jose Guillen, who hit the go-ahead home run in the eighth inning, made 25,435 at Citizens Bank Park boo the home bullpen. They slugged the Nationals to their first win in franchise history. They destroyed the notion, for an evening, that Washington has no pop or circumstance in its bats.

Who knows where the District's baseball team will be in the National League East standings come June. Today, after the first victory for a team from Washington since September of 1971, the Nationals are tied with the Phillies -- who have a much longer and distinguished history of dreadful relief pitching.

Tim Worrell walked toward the dugout in the eighth inning. Head down, his ears stung after giving up four runs, four hits and the lead against an offense bordering on anemic a week ago.

"We lacked pop," Robinson said, "We didn't have that big clutch guy since Vlady." That would be Vladimir Guerrero, who left the Expos for Anaheim more than a year ago.

Of all the qualities the Nationals possessed -- Robinson, a baseball icon as manager; Livan Hernandez, a World Series MVP as its number one starter; and a more-than-decent defensive team -- a big bopper was not one of them.

Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield socked baseballs and sold tickets for someone else. Ever since Guerrero, the franchise has been extremely low on marquee home-run hitters. As in, none. Guillen is a player who can change that. Wilkerson stays in the park more often, but he too has power. He hit 32 home runs last season.

"Not trying to hit it out of the park is the key for me," Wilkerson said. He was asked about his smallish stature next to some of the game's larger power hitters. "In this game, talent is all the same for about 90 percent of us. It's all mental. You look at Mickey Mantle, Tony Gwynn, Roger Maris -- they were all 5-10, 5-11 guys who were great hitters. They had shorter arms and shorter, compact swings. Really, most of the greatest hitters in the game are smaller guys."

Robinson, rightly concerned about his offense as the Nationals broke spring training, may not have to worry about scoring runs as much as he thought. The Nationals had hit a measly .261 and mustered just 19 homers in 29 games during the spring. If pitching was supposed to keep Washington in games, hitting was supposed to keep them out.

Yet two games in, the Nationals have 29 hits and three home runs. Eight of their 16 hits on Wednesday night went for extra bases -- including three by Wilkerson.

Two games in, the Nationals have more players who have hit for the cycle than anyone in the entire franchise history of the San Diego Padres. Wilkerson has done it twice -- his other came in June of 2003 -- what Steve Garvey, Tony Gwynn and Kurt Bevacqua never accomplished once in San Diego.

It's too bad the team's new fan base did not get to see it.

Thanks to Peter Angelos's continued benevolence, no one in Washington watched. The Orioles owner's 90 percent share of the Nationals' regional TV rights usually includes weekend games. It did not include the first win in franchise history and only the 26th player in major league history to hit for the cycle twice. But regional viewers did get to see that bang-up job by the Baltimore Nine. The Orioles were emasculated, 9-0. Beautiful, huh?

Meanwhile, here in Philly, a guy affectionately called "Wilky" helped make Nationals history. He was asked if the nickname is a little too, well, chummy, collegial, almost Kentucky-nice, for a feared slugger like himself.

"I don't know about a new nickname, I just don't get into that," Wilkerson said "Right now it's just Wilkie. You can use an 'ie' or a 'y' at the end. Don't matter."

Indeed, when Robinson was desperate for someone to fill in for Endy Chavez, the leadoff hitter recently sent to the minors, Wilkerson switched up. When Nick Johnson went down with injuries, Wilkerson moved to first base. When Robinson wanted to make sure Terrmel Sledge's bat was in the lineup, he moved to center field with nary a gripe.

Something about Wilkerson understands adjustment. Opening Day, he struck out three times and went 1 for 5. On Wednesday night, he hit for the cycle and history.

Some symmetry, no? The sudden, continued transformation of a player is mirroring the sudden, continued transformation of a franchise.

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