At RFK, Nats Enjoy Comforts of Home

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 29, 2006

Perhaps it was their way of thanking the home team for not completely giving away the season before summer set in. Or maybe it was a moment to say goodbye, an acknowledgement that they will next appear at RFK Stadium more than a week into June. Whatever the case, with two outs in the top of the ninth inning, an announced crowd of 30,348 rose to its feet, anticipating the completion of -- who could've guessed? -- a resoundingly successful homestand for the Washington Nationals.

"We know we can play here," rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

Now they have shown it. Yesterday's 10-4 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers -- one that featured homers from Zimmerman, Alfonso Soriano and a pair from Nick Johnson -- gave the Nationals seven wins on the 10-game stay here, the longest this season. More over, the Nationals won each of the three series, taking two of three from Baltimore, three of four from Houston and two of three from the Dodgers. The long, miserable month of April has been shaken off by Memorial Day, and the process of gaining back some of that lost ground might finally be starting.

"You have to play well at home if you're going to think about having any kind of a season," Manager Frank Robinson said. "We hadn't been doing that."

Indeed, the Nationals lost nine of their first 10 games this year at RFK, and all the ghouls and goblins that lurked in the park last year started to reappear. The fences were too far back, the players said. It was simply unfair to hitters, they chirped.

But with Soriano on board -- his solo shot in the fourth yesterday was his 18th of the year, his 11th in just 91 at-bats at RFK -- the Nationals have quieted down a bit about their surroundings.

"I don't know what happened last year," said Soriano, with Texas last year. "I know I feel very good. I feel comfortable here, and my teammates are getting comfortable, too."

The Nationals' afternoon -- one in which they drove Los Angeles starter Jae Seo from the game with a five-run third inning -- got them feeling quite comfortable at RFK. They racked up 16 hits -- eight for extra bases -- against Seo and four relievers. Last season, they hit as many as three homers at RFK twice in 81 games. This season, they have done it three times in a 23-game span. "We have guys here who have RFK power," Robinson said, "if they hit the ball right."

For the most part on this homestand, they hit the ball right. They hit .293 and slugged .481, well above their season marks of .259 and .426.

"We're starting to play better as a team," Zimmerman said. "It's contagious."

It might be particularly contagious for Johnson, who used the Dodgers to resurrect his season. His homestand featured a string of 16 at-bats without a hit, one which dropped his average to .275 on the year. But against Los Angeles, he went 8 for 11 with two doubles and two homers, pushing his average up to a more suitable .302.

"It's a feel," Johnson said. "You just got to go up and try to get that feel. They threw a lot of off-speed pitches, and that's when you can tell. You can feel if your body's sliding, or if you're staying back."

The most significant of the four homers likely was the one from Zimmerman, a three-run shot in the third that took a 1-0 game and made it 4-0. The three RBI gave him 31 for the year, and he is now tied for the lead among rookies with Milwaukee's Prince Fielder and Florida's Josh Willingham.

That opened up an inning in which the Nationals hit for the cycle against Seo, ripping out a season-high six hits. With the lead at 7-0 following Soriano's leadoff homer in the fourth -- a high-arcing blast that carried out to left-center -- they could turn things over to starter Ramon Ortiz, who continued his revival with seven quality innings in which he allowed three runs, his third win in a row.

"This is what we have to do when the team gives you runs," Ortiz said. "All you have to do is throw strikes. If they hit it, so what?"

So Ortiz threw strikes -- 18 of the 28 hitters he faced saw a strike on the first pitch -- and the Nationals appeared ready to cruise. Yet there was one precarious moment on an otherwise flawless afternoon. With Ortiz done for the day, Jon Rauch came in to pitch the eighth, allowing a run on a walk, a hit batter, a single and another hit batter. With two outs, the bases loaded and the Nationals leading 9-4, Robinson called on rookie Santiago Ramirez to wiggle out of the predicament.

Ramirez threw one pitch to Dodgers rookie Russell Martin, and Martin sent a sinking liner to center. Marlon Byrd charged in and sized it up. Make a diving catch, and the inning would be over. Misjudge it even slightly, and it could scoot by to the wall, taking a five-run lead and making it one or two. "Fortunately," Byrd said, "it stayed up for me," and he made a sensational play that ended the Dodgers' hopes.

The day, though, wasn't over until the crowd rose in the ninth, until 39-year-old Dodgers reserve Sandy Alomar Jr. hit a grounder down the third base line, enough to make Zimmerman dive. He did, and came up with the ball on a beautiful, backhand short-hop. When he popped up and fired the ball across the diamond, when Johnson scooped it out of the dirt at first, the Nationals had the perfectly spectacular end to a very comforting stay at home.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company