By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 22, 2006
Remember the images, even if they mean almost nothing to the players on the field. The "Let's Go O's!" banner along the right field line. The occasional T-shirt telling Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos how he could, um, spend his spare time. The subtle signs of two fan bases that would like very badly to beat the other, because then there will be something on which to hang their hats during a long summer full of baseball that just might be mediocre.
That stuff, the leftovers from the first series between teams from Baltimore and Washington in 35 years, didn't matter one bit in the Nationals' clubhouse yesterday evening. The feeling there was more basic and tangible. As Nationals second baseman Jose Vidro said, "The beer tastes a lot better."
It tastes that way because the Nationals took a 3-1 victory yesterday afternoon, their second in three games this weekend at RFK Stadium over the neighboring Orioles, the only team in either league that can bus here, bus back, sleep in their own beds and show up again the next day. They did it in front of an announced crowd of 32,152, meaning nearly 95,000 folks saw the two teams this weekend. They did it behind Livan Hernandez (2-5), the big right-hander who may have righted himself with seven innings in which he allowed just one run.
But the Nationals did it with an understanding that to them, they were just three more games, three games in which either team could have established momentum.
"I think the players just played the schedule," Orioles Manager Sam Perlozzo said.
The schedule has the two franchises playing three more games next month in Baltimore, and they will remain partners in interleague play, meaning they'll face each other every year. Yet any "rivalry" is clearly in the developmental stages, particularly because both teams are below .500.
"Right now, this series, it's for bragging rights," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "That's what it is. The players are going to have to be a little nasty, and the fans are going to have to be nasty. . . . It's got to be sort of a proud, turf type of thing. 'My team is better than your team, and we're going to beat you in the series.' "
The Nationals beat the Orioles in this series because they out-pitched them, and they did that because Hernandez had his most effective outing of the season. He was not at his sharpest, as four walks would indicate. But in some ways, he was like the Hernandez of old, putting runners on base, then erasing them when it looked like the Orioles would pounce. He said afterward, "This is the Livan that you know."
"It was a good, tough, hang-in-there outing for him," Robinson said.
It is what Hernandez is supposed to be -- a good, tough, hang-in-there pitcher, all the qualities that would make him attractive to contenders such as the New York Mets as this summer wears on. He is painfully aware, however, that he has pitched up to neither his capabilities nor his reputation this year. So late Saturday night, after he came home from RFK, he decided to change his routine.
"I went to the movies," he said. "Poseidon" was the choice, though he didn't acknowledge how much water he had taken on lately. By the time he got home, he said it was 3 a.m.
Yet he awoke yesterday morning and came to the park, somehow rejuvenated. Want baseball entertainment? Watch Hernandez pitch out of problems, all while topping 86 mph maybe three or four times a game.
"He's one of those off-speed pitchers you have to be real patient against," Perlozzo said. "We weren't patient enough with him. He's going to make you fish for some stuff."
And he did that best when he was in trouble. With one out in the fourth and runners on first and second, Hernandez came through with a strikeout of Jeff Conine -- one of three for Conine in the game -- and got Nick Markakis to fly out. With the bases loaded and no outs in the fifth, he got a groundball that third baseman Ryan Zimmerman might have been able to throw home had he not bobbled it, allowing a run to score. But Zimmerman recorded an out at third, and Hernandez got a pop-up, and then Marlon Byrd made a diving catch on Javy Lopez's sinking liner to right. Base runners? No problem.
From there, Hernandez retired the last six men he faced, re-setting the Nationals' bullpen for the upcoming series against the Houston Astros. Mike Stanton worked a perfect eighth, and Chad Cordero a scoreless ninth for his fifth save. Everybody else could relax.
"That was a huge help for everybody out there," Cordero said. "When he does that, we know we're going to get the rest we need, get in the rhythm that we all want."
And with that, the Nationals felt in a rhythm for one of the few times all year. In the last month, they had only won consecutive games once. Now, they have three wins in their last four, with a week of home dates still ahead.
They have one hitter, Alfonso Soriano, who is so feared that after he singled twice he was walked intentionally in his next two at-bats. They have another, Vidro, who used two hits to get his average up to .346. And they got the kind of pitching that allows them to forget the missed opportunities in the sixth and the seventh, when they put runners on third with one out and couldn't get a run.
Rivalry? Battle of the Beltways? Interstate 95 Insurrection? Forget all that. The Nationals wanted better baseball over the weekend, and they got it.
"We got three of the last four," Vidro said, smiling. "It definitely feels a lot better."