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Nats, Castilla Stay Perfect At New Home

Nationals 9, Diamondbacks 3

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page E01

When the Washington Nationals signed Vinny Castilla to a two-year, $6.2 million contract in the offseason, there were whispers throughout baseball. Forget that he led the National League in RBI just last year. He is 37, and therefore too old. He can't hit outside of Denver's Coors Field, where he played for the Colorado Rockies, and where offensive numbers are inflated. The deal, people said, was bad baseball.

Try and tell that to anyone who watched the first two games at RFK Stadium, perched on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill, where the air might just be as thin as Denver's. Last night, Castilla helped right-hander John Patterson extend the Nationals' winning streak to four games by staying perfect in the Nationals' new home, smacking a two-run homer and driving in four runs for the second consecutive game, enough for a 9-3 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks in front of the 34,943 satisfied customers who witnessed the District's second regular season game in 34 years.

John Patterson delivers one of his 87 pitches, going 7 innings while allowing 4 hits and striking out 6. He took the No. 5 spot in the Nats' rotation after Tony Armas Jr. got injured in spring training. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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"No matter what people say about Coors Field this, Coors Field that," left fielder Brad Wilkerson said, "it's about learning how to hit and knowing how to hit. He's hitting the ball all over the place with runners on base."

Try 3 for 3, for the second straight game. In eight plate appearances at RFK, he is yet to be retired. With two homers, two doubles, a triple and a single, his home slugging percentage is now 2.667.

So drag out those old numbers. Last year, when Castilla drove in 131 runs, he hit .321 at home, .218 on the road. His slugging percentage: .575 at Coors, .493 elsewhere. When Castilla's career took off during an earlier seven-year stint in Colorado, the fact that people would harp on stats like that would get to him.

"I think that's why I don't do too good on the road, because I try to prove people wrong," Castilla said. "But last year -- nobody says this -- I hit 21 home runs on the road, and only 14 at home. . . .

"People are going to talk all the time, but right now, it doesn't bother me. They can say whatever they want. I'm just going to come here, play -- and help this team win."

Which is something the Nationals are doing in unexpected fashion. And as much as Castilla has been the star of the team's first two games, the pitching has been a more than worthy co-star. Patterson, inserted into Zach Day's former spot in the rotation, was sensational, tossing seven scoreless innings, allowing only one runner to second while buckling knee after knee with a nasty curveball. How good was it? All six batters Patterson struck out looked at strike three.

"If he can go out there and give us that kind of performance," Manager Frank Robinson said, "we're going to be all right."

Castilla's two-run shot to left off Arizona righty Russ Ortiz in the fourth staked Patterson to a 2-0 lead, which he never came close to relinquishing. But in the seventh, Robinson made two telling decisions.

With runners on first and third and no one out, shortstop Cristian Guzman was due up. Guzman, though, had managed just two weak grounders earlier in the night and is hitting .122. So Robinson pinch-hit Carlos Baerga.

"I've got to try to get some more runs there," Robinson said.

Baerga popped to short left and failed to score the run. The other interesting move came next, when Robinson pinch-hit Terrmel Sledge for Patterson, who had only thrown 87 pitches. It showed Robinson's confidence in his bullpen, setup man Luis Ayala and closer Chad Cordero.

And it paid off. Sledge walked with the bases full, and Wilkerson followed with the two-run single that unleashed a seven-run inning, featuring a three-run double from Jose Vidro and -- surprise -- a two-run double from Castilla.

"We don't have an easy out in the lineup," Wilkerson said.

The one glitch in the plan came from the bullpen. With the Nationals up 9-0, Ayala issued a walk to the leadoff man -- which elicited a trip to the mound from Robinson, who was visibly upset. Ayala eventually gave up a three-run homer to Luis Gonzalez, and the Nationals needed three more relievers -- including Cordero -- to finish it off.

"You get a little irritated," Robinson said. "You have two innings to go, and you're up 9-0, and you have to go through pitchers and go to your closer to close out a ballgame. That's not what you want to see."

Everything else, though, is exactly what the Nationals want to see. Home-field advantage? It might be a bit early for that. But for all the "firsts" surrounding Washington baseball this season, there is one that matters, even in April: first place.

"This is a different team," Patterson said. "We're competing really well. Everybody's really happy in this clubhouse right now."

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