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Nats Settle Down to Business

After the Celebration, Fast Start, First-Place Team Tries to Hit a Stride

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 16, 2005; Page D07

Even as members of the media scurried past laundry baskets and maneuvered around couches in the Washington Nationals' cramped clubhouse Thursday night at RFK Stadium, the players who stood in front of their red lockers answering myriad questions could sense it. The aftermath of the Nationals' 5-3 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks was, for Washington, very much a celebration of baseball's return.

The players felt that, too. But for them, as Thursday turned to Friday, there was also a time to exhale. Yesterday, for the first time, they had a day off in their new digs, time to house hunt, to eat out, to become Washingtonians. Tonight, when they return to RFK for their second home game -- still in first place, still the talk of a town that loves to talk -- there will be something that had been hard to find when these guys made up the Montreal Expos: a rhythm.

Manager Frank Robinson gets used to the environs at RFK Stadium, where he expects big numbers and strong support from the fans: "I know it won't be just a few thousand in here." (Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)

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"All the firsts are out the door," outfielder Brad Wilkerson said. "First home game, first everything is out the door. Now, it's time to play baseball.

"We're in first place. We're where we want to be. We're off to a good start. We just got to keep it rolling. Our confidence is pretty high right now. It's going to be a fun year."

Baseball, with its everyday ebb and flow through the change of spring to summer and summer to fall, is different from any other sport, a constant. Events like Thursday's are the exception, for in most cities, it exists without constant hype and hyperbole.

The Nationals officially enter that mode for the first time today, when righty John Patterson -- so impressive in his first start last Sunday against Florida, allowing only a one two-run double in seven innings -- starts against Arizona righty Russ Ortiz, late of the Atlanta Braves. The players and coaches will be monitoring the crowd. How big is it? How does it compare to Thursday? What can they expect for the rest of the year?

"Just by the ticket sales," Manager Frank Robinson said, "I know it won't be just a few thousand in here."

Indeed, a season-ticket base of nearly 22,000 would make a tiny crowd surprising. So the on-field challenge for the Nationals now is to continue to play better than many people expected. They have won six of their first 10 games -- including five of nine on a grueling season-opening road trip that featured the cream of the National League East -- by doing what Robinson felt like they had to do to compete. They are, for the most part, playing simple, sound baseball. They have committed just five errors. They have put the disastrous innings and games -- specifically, losses to Florida by 8-0 and 9-0 and Atlanta by 11-2 -- behind them. And they have received clutch hits from several players up and down the order, from right fielder Jose Guillen to Wilkerson to second baseman Jose Vidro to catcher Brian Schneider.

Whether the significant momentum generated by this nice little three-game winning streak -- not to mention the fact that the Nationals entered last night in sole possession of first place in the National League East -- is sustained will be determined this weekend and through the remainder of this seven-game homestand. But the schedule, finally, is favorable. Thursday night began a stretch in which the Nationals play 13 of 16 games at home. Not in Puerto Rico, wearing white uniforms but still living out of suitcases. At home.

"We've come together nicely," outfielder Ryan Church said. "Everybody's getting a feel for each other, and finding out what kind of team we can be. Especially with the competition we faced on that road trip, coming out of there 5-4, we had momentum already. Now, we've got a three-game winning streak. I don't know how many winning streaks we had last year."

In 2004, as the Montreal Expos, the franchise's first three-game winning streak came May 6-8, and it merely lifted the team's record to 10-21. Six times the team won three games or more in a row, and the longest winning streak was six games.

"How many wins we'll get, I don't know," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "But I do know this team is going to compete. They're going to get their uniforms dirty. They're going to play hard every single night, just like this city wants a team to represent it. They're going to go about it just like these fans would want them to go about it."

That, of course, will be determined during that rhythm of the season, on those muggy July nights when the stadium has 15,000 or 20,000 empty seats. But before the rhythm starts, there is room for something this franchise hasn't felt in a long time, and Washington hasn't felt as a baseball town perhaps since Walter Johnson was firing fastballs for the Senators. There is room for some swagger.

"I told you in spring training, everybody not talk about the Washington Nationals . . . " said righty Livan Hernandez, who started and won the home opener by carrying a one-hitter into the ninth. "Nobody wants to talk about the team. It's good like that. You can show those people talking not good about the team, this team can do something good. Everybody here is quiet, no say nothing. But everybody [in the clubhouse] will show the people that this team, it can play."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company