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A Triumphant Return

Nats Win Historic Home Opener

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page D01

Perhaps it would have been just a tad too much. On the night baseball returned to Washington -- boasting a first-place team, with the president throwing the opening pitch high and inside, with RFK Stadium filled to the rafters and shaking with the throaty roars of a sellout -- a one-hitter would have simply been over the top.

"I wanted it," said Livan Hernandez, the author of the moment. "But you know, what else can I ask for? How can I not be happy? It's baseball."

Under a gorgeous blue sky, the Nationals take the field in their 2005 home opener at RFK Stadium. It was the first regular season game in Washington since the Senators forfeited their last game to the New York Yankees on Sept. 30, 1971. (Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)

That thought could have spread throughout the Washington Nationals' clubhouse, throughout the stands, where 45,596 fans showed up to witness baseball's return to the nation's capital. On a perfectly crisp April evening, Hernandez provided what they came for, crafty pitching that's as fun to watch on a hazy day in mid-August as it is on the District's first night of baseball in 34 years. He carried that one-hitter into the ninth before allowing a one-out, three-run home run, but the moment was too good to let go. Hernandez walked to the dugout, dejected only for a moment before Chad Cordero finished off the Arizona Diamondbacks in a 5-3 victory that helped baseball storm back into town.

It's hard to say that any of 162 games is much more important than the next. This one might have been. The victory made a day that was filled with ceremony and distractions whole, "the icing," as Manager Frank Robinson said. With third baseman Vinny Castilla going 3 for 3 and driving in four runs by smoking a double, triple and a home run, the Nationals have now won three straight, and improbably remain atop the National League East.

"It keeps the enthusiasm high, and the expectations even higher," Robinson said. "They're probably going to Vegas and putting coins on us right now."

For one night, it wouldn't seem crazy, even if the team is merely the Montreal Expos -- losers of 95 games last year -- dressed up in spanking new red, white and blue uniforms. Though the energy in the building was initially deadened a bit by the late-arriving crowd -- victims of the security necessary for President Bush's brief pregame appearance -- it was there in full force by the middle of the game, when Castilla collected the first RBI in RFK since 1971 with his two-run triple down the right field line. The fans in the lower bowl -- some of them clearly familiar with RFK's creaky tendencies -- bounced up-and-down, no pogo sticks required. The upper deck shook a bit. Baseball was back, and the Nationals had seized the lead.

"When we first looked at the fans," reserve outfielder Terrmel Sledge said, "I was like: We finally have a home-field advantage."

Hernandez noticed it, too. He had trouble getting to the ballpark, battling traffic, arriving at 5:55 p.m. rather than between 5 and 5:30, as he prefers on the days he starts. But he shook it off quickly. Flashbulbs lit up the stadium when he fired the first pitch to Arizona second baseman Craig Counsell, a called strike at 7:06 p.m.

"I thought about throwing a ball," Hernandez said. "I didn't want him to swing at it."

Catcher Brian Schneider -- already part of history after he caught for the president -- tossed the ball back to Hernandez, who called time and threw it to the dugout, a piece of history that needed to be preserved.

From there, Hernandez settled in. His first win of the season was secured in the fashion he has made his own, walking slowly to the mound in baggy jersey and pants down to his shoe tops, then unfurling his body in a smooth, seemingly effortless motion. He can throw any of four or five pitches at any point in the count, and he did against Arizona, which came into the game leading the National League with a .295 average. But until the ninth, the Diamondbacks' only hit came with one out in the fourth, a grounder by Arizona left fielder Luis Gonzalez that glanced off the glove of shortstop Cristian Guzman, who was playing to the right of second base in an exaggerated shift.

"Livan was unbelievable," Arizona Manager Bob Melvin said. "If ever there was a right pitcher for a night like this, it was Livan. He loves the big crowds. He loves the big games."

Castilla, who had missed the previous two games with a strained right shoulder, gave Hernandez everything he needed to win. After the triple, he came to the plate in the fifth with two outs and Ryan Church on first. He sent an 0-2 pitch from Arizona starter Javier Vazquez -- a former Montreal Expo -- high into the sky in left, sailing into the Nationals' bullpen, a 5-0 lead that had RFK's upper deck swaying again.

That would have been enough. But in a way, Castilla also provided the moment that many of the Nationals found most encouraging for the rest of the season -- even without lifting his bat from his shoulder. In the bottom of the eighth, he came to the plate with a man on and no one out, needing just a single for the cycle.

"I wanted to do that," Castilla said. "I never do that in my career. It would be great."

But Arizona reliever Lance Cormier plunked Castilla with the first pitch. No cycle. Before Castilla could take two steps toward first, the crowd booed, a sound that resonated as if it came from the bottom of 45,596 throats.

"I mean, it's 5-0," left fielder Brad Wilkerson said. "A lot of fans would've been out of there. . . . But they were paying attention. They knew he was going for the cycle. They booed the whole inning. That showed me a lot, right there."

The Nationals, in turn, showed their fans a lot. Hernandez would have loved to finish the game; he led the majors in complete games in each of the last two seasons. But he allowed the last of his six walks to Gonzalez to open the ninth, then, with one out, a Shawn Green single.

"He was tiring," Schneider said, "but what more can you ask?"

Diamondbacks first baseman Chad Tracy then pulled a drive over the right field fence, the three-run homer that finally drove Hernandez from the game. In 10 quick games, though, this team has developed a personality. The Nationals pick each other up. Thus, Cordero came in, induced one ground-out, allowed a single, and then got pinch hitter Tony Clark to fly harmlessly to center, the ball settling in Church's glove just before smoke and explosions celebrated the moment.

"I didn't know it was going to be like this," Church said, long after the ball was secured. "But these people are hungry for baseball. . . . Hearing the screams and the yells, it's not Montreal at all. It just gave me chills."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company