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New Brooms, Clean Sweeps

First-Place Nats Rally Past D-Backs; Win Streak Hits 5: Nationals 7, Diamondbacks 3

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 18, 2005; Page D01

What people will notice is the six-run outburst in the bottom of the seventh, when the Washington Nationals turned what looked like a loss into a win by batting around. And, indeed, Nick Johnson's two-run triple and Brian Schneider's go-ahead single -- the key blows in the Nationals' 7-3 victory -- should symbolize Washington's five-game winning streak, because they are prime examples of the kind of situational hitting the Nationals need in such spots.

But to find the core of the latest in an improbable string of victories -- and the sequence that allowed the Nationals to remain unbeaten in their new home -- go to the top of the same inning. Back then, the Nationals trailed 3-1. The crowd of 35,463 was happy enough to sit in the sun and bask in Washington's first baseball weekend in 34 years.


Vinny Castilla, left, and Jose Guillen head back to the Nationals' dugout after scoring -- nearly simultaneously -- on Nick Johnson's seventh-inning triple. (Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)


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Yet in the top of the seventh, Nationals starter Esteban Loaiza -- who battled without his best stuff -- allowed a leadoff double to Arizona's Craig Counsell. On the next play, shortstop Royce Clayton tried to bunt Counsell over, seeking an insurance run. Loaiza, unwisely, threw to third, and Counsell was safe, leaving runners at the corners with nobody out. Nationals Manager Frank Robinson turned to his bullpen.

"Our job," reliever T.J. Tucker said, "is to keep them from scoring."

So that's just what the bullpen, and the entire team, did. Robinson summoned lefty Joe Horgan to face Diamondbacks left fielder Luis Gonzalez. Gonzalez smacked Horgan's first pitch, a two-seam fastball, up the middle, something of a line drive. Shortstop Cristian Guzman, perfectly positioned, short-hopped the ball, stepped on second for the force, calmly looked Counsell back to third, and threw to first for the kind of double play that can keep a team in a game that, a batter before, appeared to be slipping away.

"To not only field the ball," Horgan said, "but make the out at second, check that runner at third and then make the throw to first? That's a big-time play right there."

With the way things are going for the Nationals, though, maybe it was more than that.

"You couldn't have drawn up a better happenstance double play," reliever Joey Eischen said. "I mean, that's just karma."

Which the Nationals might have more of than any other commodity at the moment. With two outs and Counsell still on third, Tucker came in and induced Arizona third baseman Troy Glaus -- who had only one hit in nine at-bats during the series -- into a soft fly to right field. It was still 3-1, and there was some new energy.

"That really picked us up as a team," Robinson said, "and it may have taken a little heart out of the Diamondbacks."

So what followed made sense. Jose Vidro led off the bottom of the seventh with a single, and Jose Guillen followed by doubling him to third, driving Arizona starter Brad Halsey -- who came over from the New York Yankees as part of the Randy Johnson trade -- from the game.

That was all the Nationals needed. Mike Koplove replaced Halsey, and Vidro was retired at the plate on a fielder's choice hit by Vinny Castilla -- a play Vidro labeled a "mistake" -- to bring up Johnson. In two at-bats against the lefty Halsey, the left-handed hitting Johnson had twice grounded into double plays. "You've got to forget about that," Johnson said.

Facing Koplove, a right-hander, he did. Johnson drove the ball to deep center, just over the head of center fielder Quinton McCracken. Guillen held at second to make sure McCracken didn't catch it, and Castilla nearly ran him over. It didn't matter. The two sprinted, nearly in tandem, around third and slid virtually simultaneously into home, the bang-bang play that tied the ballgame. When Schneider followed by sharply grounding a sinker up the middle to score Johnson, the Nationals led 4-3 and the rout was brewing. Throw in a bases-loaded walk to the struggling Guzman and a two-run single by Vidro, and the Nationals' total in the seventh inning of their last two victories was 13 runs.

"Everybody put a little something in there," Vidro said.

Thus, the celebration of baseball's return to Washington continued in earnest. Yes, there are plenty of kinks to work out, from a pitcher's mound that isn't perfect to an infield that players say is a bit loose. But the element that, to this point, has exceeded everybody's expectations is the team itself, now 8-4 and still in first place in the National League East.

A message, perhaps?

"I just hope we'll continue to just exist under the radar," Robinson said. "I'm not sending a message in April -- to anybody. The only message I want to send is to the players: Keep playing hard, and we'll take our chances. But the rest of the league? I hope they just continue to scoot along and ignore us. . . . We won't bother anybody."


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