Nationals Go Quietly

Jim Boyd, left, and daughter Kristin have a difference of opinion as to which team to root for before last night's Nationals-Orioles game at RFK Stadium.
Jim Boyd, left, and daughter Kristin have a difference of opinion as to which team to root for before last night's Nationals-Orioles game at RFK Stadium. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 20, 2006

Mike O'Connor, the young man who grew up rooting for the Baltimore Orioles and now pitches for the Washington Nationals, might have summed up the uncertain nature of last night's events at RFK Stadium, albeit unwittingly.

"It was definitely cool to be able to pitch the first game of this, uh, series," he said, standing at his locker, fumbling for the right word. "Uh, I'm not sure what they're calling it."

So what to make of it, this first regular season meeting of major league teams from Baltimore and Washington since 1971, nine years before O'Connor was born? This much we know: Orioles right-hander Kris Benson dominated the Nationals with a five-hit, 5-1 complete game victory, and the Baltimore fans clad in black-and-orange could head back north with smiles on their faces.

As for extra juice provided by the mere matchup between the two cities and teams, there was little. Nationals Manager Frank Robinson, who served in the same capacity in Baltimore 15 years ago and is in the Hall of Fame wearing an Orioles cap, played down the notion of a rivalry in the pregame run-up, saying such a status has to develop over time. Last night, it seemed the 70-year-old sage was right.

"I didn't think it was electric," Orioles Manager Sam Perlozzo said. "It was okay."

Oh, if only the home team was okay. Benson gave the Nationals fans in the announced crowd of 30,230 -- roughly 15,000 short of a sellout -- almost nothing to cheer about, save for Alfonso Soriano's titanic homer in the eighth, Washington's only extra-base hit. It was Benson's first complete game as an Oriole, his best outing with his new team, and it served to make the atmosphere at RFK staid.

"That was a lot of fun tonight," said Benson, who improved to 6-3 and lowered his ERA to 3.86. "I've faced the Nats a lot, but they had my number last year."

That was when Benson pitched for the New York Mets, not to mention when the Nationals were one of the worst offensive teams in baseball. What, really, has changed this season? They have added Soriano, a player with more pop than any they have had since they moved from Montreal last spring. But they have now lost three of their last four despite the fact the opponent hasn't scored more than five runs. In each loss, the Nationals have five or fewer hits.

"This entire lineup is not doing the job right now offensively," Robinson said. "It hasn't for some time. It's a hit and a miss. It's a hit one game here or one game there, and then it's shut down. Four or five hits, and usually they're all singles -- and not together."

Yet O'Connor did what he could to keep the Nationals close, to put them in position where with perhaps one lucky swing they could steal a win. The 25-year-old rookie left-hander just might be the embodiment of the baseball rivalry between two cities -- if one is, in fact, to develop -- for he has ties to both. He grew up in Ellicott City, went to Mount St. Joseph High School in Baltimore, then played college ball at George Washington. When he came up in the Baltimore suburbs, there was no other major league team in the area for which to root other than the Orioles.

But when he stepped on the rubber to open this series, he said he didn't think about the black and orange uniforms. And it's not as if he unfurled his first pitch to, say, Cal Ripken or Eddie Murray. Into the batter's box for the rebirth of this series came Ed Rogers, a utility man who has toiled in the Orioles system for eight years.

O'Connor went about his business the way he has in each of his five major league starts, calmly and coolly, belying the fact that he had no intention of arriving in the majors this early. When the first two men of the second reached on an error and a walk, he got the next three looking at strike three. When Orioles right fielder Jay Gibbons scalded a line drive off his left shoulder in the fourth, he shook his arm, met with Robinson and athletic trainer Tim Abraham, stepped back on the mound, loaded the bases, then got out of the jam.

"He's a real gutty kid," Robinson said. "He believes in himself. He knows how to pitch, and he goes out there and pitches. He doesn't throw. He pitches."

If only Robinson could say the same for veteran reliever Felix Rodriguez. O'Connor departed after six innings in which he allowed two runs, at least one because substitute right fielder Daryle Ward misplayed a ball hit by Corey Patterson into a triple. Rodriguez then imploded, allowing two in the seventh and one more in the eighth before Robinson mercifully came and removed him with the bases loaded. Rodriguez, whose ERA ballooned to 6.85, took a game in which one swing might have made a difference for the Nationals and put it out of reach.

"To give them two more," Robinson said, "that was almost like lights out, really."

Benson, really, provided the lights-out portion of the evening. He gave the Orioles' bullpen the night off, and when he quietly retired the Nationals with a perfect ninth, the Baltimore fans remaining in the crowd let out a loud cheer. What Washington fans who stayed through the misery immediately booed it down.

And when the fans headed out of the old stadium into the night, one wearing an orange jersey began to shout, "Let's go, Orioles!", pumping his fist. The Nationals fans trudged forward without much of a response, a long season ahead and a loss to their neighbors immediately behind.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company