Nationals Keep the Train Rolling

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 20, 2005

Ned Yost sat in a folding chair, alone at the back of the small, spartan room that serves as the visiting manager's office at RFK Stadium. In his left hand, he held a plastic cup of beer. On his face, he wore the blank and startled expression of a man who had watched a train roar by, unexpectedly, as he stood just feet from the track.

Yost, the Milwaukee manager, had just endured the Brewers' third loss in four games to the Washington Nationals, a 3-2 decision yesterday afternoon at RFK that had 30,968 fans more than happy they made it to the stadium for the 1 p.m. start. Yost's team scored more runs in the series, rapped out more hits, yet lost handily. How to explain it?

"That team, over there?" Yost said, gesturing with his thumb toward the Nationals' clubhouse. "That's a nice club. A nice club. They play the game right. They don't make mistakes. And they're tough."

Nationals Manager Frank Robinson tried to claim afterward that he hadn't figured out his team's personality, its identity, just yet. But perhaps those fans have. On a day when right-hander Livan Hernandez won his sixth straight start despite a balky right knee, a day when everyman Jamey Carroll had to sub -- once again -- for all-star Jose Vidro, a day when slugger Jose Guillen never got off the bench, the Nationals won anyway.

"They feel like, in a quiet way," Robinson said, "that they can win the ballgame they're playing that day."

It doesn't have to be spectacular. Rather, it can be quite mundane, as it was yesterday. A hero? Find one. Vinny Castilla scored the winning run in the sixth when a pitch from Brewers reliever Tommy Phelps skipped away from catcher Chad Moeller. Castilla took off.

"I thought it would roll further away," he said.

He should have been out by a few feet. But Moeller threw behind Phelps, who was covering the plate. The ball squirted free, and Castilla slid home, exactly the kind of good fortune that seems to occur when a team is playing well. And the Nationals are playing precisely that well -- five wins in their last six games to get them five games over .500 for the first time all year, and, somehow, just a half-game back of first-place Atlanta in the National League East, tied with Florida for second.

"When a team's playing good, and they get all the breaks, you've got to take advantage of that, because it could change," Castilla said. "But we're playing great baseball."

Hernandez (7-2) is certainly pitching well. His six-inning, seven-hit, one-walk, one-run performance was, in some ways, typical for himself and his club: He doesn't look like much, yet he excels. He allowed runners in every inning but one, but he still tied Florida's Dontrelle Willis for most wins in the National League. All this, despite a knee from which he had fluid drained earlier this week.

"I want to pitch, but it's not easy," Hernandez said. "You've got it in your mind, any movement you make, you're going to be hurt again. But I keep trying to throw strikes."

That, too, is why Robinson could remove Hernandez after six, lifting him for a pinch hitter. The Nationals relievers -- at least the ones they use in close games -- throw strikes. And if one doesn't -- as Hector Carrasco didn't yesterday, hitting the only two men he faced -- Robinson will find someone else who does.

Yesterday, it was Gary Majewski, who appeared in the seventh with the Nationals up 3-1 and runners on first and second. A sacrifice bunt and sacrifice fly scored one run, and with the tying run on second, Majewski got the dangerous Carlos Lee -- he of the eight home runs -- to pop to first.

"He's been nails lately," catcher Brian Schneider said.

As has the entire bullpen. Majewski turned over the game to Luis Ayala, who allowed a single, then got a double-play ball in the eighth. Closer Chad Cordero gave his typical scary performance in the ninth, walking two men before retiring Geoff Jenkins on a popup to end it. Those four relievers -- Carrasco, Majewski, Ayala and Cordero -- have a combined ERA of 1.91, perhaps the main reason the Nationals have withstood the losses of Vidro, on the disabled list because of a badly sprained left ankle, and Guillen, who sat out the past three games with a pulled muscle in his rib cage.

For now, the Nationals don't want anybody to read too much into all this.

"It's too early," Schneider said. Yet as they beat team after team -- three out of four from the Brewers gave them five victories in their last six series -- the believers are developing outside the clubhouse, not just in it.

"Without Vidro and Guillen?" Yost said. "Those are big-time offensive players. But they're a team. Their pitching is great. They don't make mistakes. And when you make them, they beat you."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company