ATLANTA, April 13 -- By the time the ball left Jose Guillen's bat, the result was no longer surprising. Early in the season, the Washington Nationals have come to expect this from their new right fielder. A line shot, just to the right of center, in the top of the ninth. Atlanta Braves center fielder Andruw Jones turned his back, hoping to play it off the wall. Instead, it sailed over, Guillen's second home run of the day, his fifth of the year, the knock that wrapped up the first road trip in Nationals history in immensely satisfying fashion.
Hold onto your brand-new red hats, Washington, the ones with the script "W" across the front that haven't even been worn to a home game yet. When the Nationals take the field Thursday night at RFK Stadium for the District's first regular season, major league game in 34 years, they will do so as a first-place team. Guillen's four-RBI performance not only provided the breathing room in an impressive 11-4 victory over the Braves Wednesday afternoon, but it helped the Nationals complete their season-opening trek with five wins in nine games, enough to tie them with the Braves and the Florida Marlins atop the National League East.
Jose Guillen provides the bulk of the offense Wednesday in Washington's 11-4 victory.
(Gregory Smith - AP)
"It's unbelievable," second baseman Jose Vidro said.
Almost any baseball story written in April must contain the phrase: "It's early, but . . .". So even with all the good feelings flowing in the Nationals' clubhouse at Turner Field early Wednesday evening -- the infectious thumping of 50 Cent's "In Da Club" setting the tone -- the players understand that a solitary 5-4 road trip doesn't win any division titles, doesn't indicate they'll contend all year, doesn't mean they're without significant flaws.
But considering where this franchise has been -- told they wouldn't exist after 2002, only to hang on by a shoestring budget the following two seasons -- the smiles the Nationals wore were as deserved as they were broad. The only road trip the Nationals won in 2004 was their final series as the Montreal Expos, when they took two of three meaningless games from the Mets in New York. Last year, en route to their 13th straight division title, the Braves beat the Expos 15 times in 19 games.
"It shows that we've got a new franchise," catcher Brian Schneider said. "We're ready to start with a new record. No doubt about it, this isn't the Expos anymore."
In some ways, it isn't even the Nationals of just 20 hours earlier. Tuesday night, Washington trailed the Braves, 3-1, in the top of the ninth. The Nationals' bats had been dormant for days, and it was easy to believe they'd finish the trip 3-6.
But Schneider capped an unlikely rally with a two-out, two-run double to win that game. And Wednesday, it was -- finally -- the Nationals who put some pressure on, using back-to-back triples from Jamey Carroll and Vidro in the fifth, along with a sacrifice fly from Guillen, to take a 4-3 lead. Guillen's first homer, a solo shot to left, came in the seventh. After Atlanta closed within 5-4 with three singles off reliever Luis Ayala in the bottom of that inning, Guillen started a six-run ninth with the two-run blast that -- at least for the remainder of the afternoon -- gave him more home runs than any major league player.
"They didn't [bring] me here to hit home runs," Guillen said later. "They brought me here to come and help the team win. . . . Trust me, I can do a lot of stuff besides hitting home runs and throwing people out. I'm a smart player. When I put this uniform on and cross the white lines, I'm all about winning."
In his first year with the franchise, Guillen is hitting .359 and slugging .821. His hits, too, have come at key moments. It's the kind of start that has the Nationals unafraid to compare Guillen to the most revered hitter most of them have ever played with, Vladimir Guerrero, the former Expo who won the American League MVP last year with Anaheim.
"He's got that kind of talent," left fielder Brad Wilkerson said. "He's got talent to hit the ball out of the ballpark, all over the field at any time. When you get guys on base, it's going to be a scary situation for the opposing team. That's something we haven't had in the lineup since Vlady left."
Thursday night, the Nationals will move into their new home. "Finally," Manager Frank Robinson said. And because of the improbable turn of events in Atlanta, they will do so with a team-wide confidence many of them have never known.
"I tell you what: We don't have names," Vidro said. "But we've got 25 guys that want to play nine innings the way it's supposed to be played. . . . The so-called experts, they always give us a hit in the back. But we're going to prove a lot of people wrong. This team is good. This team has matured a lot. I'm very excited."