Power Play at RFK

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, May 29, 2006

Everybody knows that nobody, especially the Washington Nationals, can hit many home runs in RFK Stadium. The fences are just too far away. It's unfair. So, just forget about it. Play close-to- the-vest 3-2 games and hope for the best.

Now that you know it, you can forget it. After clubbing four more homers at RFK yesterday, all 400-foot bombs, the Nats have 65 homers in 51 games. That pace for 206 homers would demolish the all-time single-season record of the Senators -- set by the '59 club that had Harmon Killebrew, Jim Lemon, Bob Allison and Roy Sievers -- by an astounding 43 home runs.

At the moment, Alfonso Soriano, Nick Johnson and Ryan Zimmerman are on pace to hit 57, 38 and 25 homers. Johnson had two booming homers in a 10-4 win over the Dodgers, while the other guys had to settle for one each. A deep bench -- led by 245-pound Daryle Ward, who hit a yellow-seat homer this week, and Matthew LeCroy -- also has added punch to a team that now has eight players on a pace for double-digit home run totals.

Last season, only two Nats had more than 12 homers, no one more than Jose Guillen's 24 and the whole team had only 117 round-trippers. The transformation this season has been so sudden that even the team itself has barely grasped it.

"The big thing is that Soriano is showing everybody that you can hit in this park," said Marlon Byrd, marveling at Soriano's 11 RFK homers in 23 games, including five homers and four doubles in this 10-game homestand. "You see him trotting around the bases and smiling. It's a huge lift. You think, 'Hey, we've got a chance in this park.' "

Perhaps just as important, most of the players who were particularly bedeviled by RFK last year have been replaced by players who, when they connect, don't have to worry about whether the 380-foot sign is really 390 feet away. Vinny Castilla, Brad Wilkerson, Jose Vidro and Guillen had warning track power in RFK. The first two are gone and Vidro has adapted by hitting singles -- and is hitting .343. Perhaps, when he returns from the DL, even Guillen will beat his RFK mental block.

Just as "everybody" knows that Washington is powerless, the baseball consensus is equally confident that the Nationals have a miserable pitching rotation that has doomed them to a bottom-of-the-league fate. No other aspect of the club is especially weak, but those lousy starting pitchers, now that Esteban Loaiza is gone, would sink any team.

Now that you are certain of this cliche, perhaps you will soon be able to forget it, too. Yesterday, as the Nats pummeled the Dodgers with 16 hits, including eight extra-base hits, Ramon Ortiz won his third straight start, working seven strong innings. The right-hander is just part of a staff-wide trend. Just as everything fell apart in April, now everything is materializing in May.

Ace Livan Hernandez has been back to normal form in his last three outings. Tony Armas Jr. is 5-2 with a 3.44 ERA in 10 fine outings this year. (Meantime, Loaiza is 0-3 with an 8.35 ERA and on the DL in Oakland.) Rookie Mike O'Connor, a 2.65 ERA in six starts, "has what it takes," according to Manager Frank Robinson. O'Connor will have another chance to show if that's true today in Philadelphia. Finally, Shawn Hill allowed one run in seven innings on Saturday against powerful Los Angeles. "O'Connor is legit," said Bob Boone, director of player personnel. "And Hill can pitch up here, too."

When John Patterson, who had 21 strikeouts and one walk in his last two starts before hurting his forearm in April, returns to the rotation in less than two weeks, Washington may have a problem it never imagined was possible: too many starting pitchers.

The jury is still out on the Nats' starters. Hernandez has pitched well, but not exceptionally. Armas has seldom stayed healthy for long. Patterson has worlds of talent but has never won 10 games. Ortiz, according to Robinson, is just starting the process (at 33) of turning from "a thrower into a pitcher." And nobody knows if O'Connor will learn the league or it will learn him.

However, the transformation of the Nats from the lowest-scoring, last-in-homers team in baseball is now a certainty. Washington is seventh in baseball in homers. The team also is on pace for 485 extra-base hits, which would break the old Senators' 71-season record by 21. So far, all that punch has not translated into as many runs as it might. The Nats are only 22nd in on-base percentage, so, with so few people on base, Washington is only 21st out of 30 teams in runs scored.

But it sure beats being pathetic last year. "We're getting some early offense," said Robinson. So, pitchers have hope.

To many fans who still assume a Nats game is an invitation to watch a Dead Ball Era exhibition of sacrifice bunts, hit-and-runs and squeezes, this homestand was the antidote. Washington went 7-3 without ever playing a one-run game while frequently winning lopsidedly: 10-4, 10-4, 8-5, 8-3 and 5-1. But yesterday was the game that woke you up. If the crowd of 30,348 had gotten a free brew every time a Nat hit a ball off or over the beer sign on the left field wall, nobody could have found their car by dusk.

Royce Clayton started the bombardment with a double toward that Bud Light ad. Zimmerman launched a three-run homer halfway up the back wall beyond the beer sign in deep left-center. Following the rookie's lead, the two Marlons, Anderson and Byrd, then tripled and doubled up the same alley. An inning later, Soriano sent a towering fly ball to the heart of the left field power alley that frustrated so many Nats last season. Yet his ball sailed over the wall easily for his 18th homer.

Told his teammates gave him credit for making RFK look manageable, Soriano said, "It's very good if they think that way."

In the sixth and eighth innings, Johnson crushed his homers, both more than 410 feet to the right field power alley. The first hit Killebrew's name on the Hall of Stars on the fly, the second whacked Chris Hanburger on one hop near the clock that Willie McCovey wounded in the '69 All-Star Game. For a finishing touch, Anderson finished the fireworks with a double off the "Going, going, gone" sign in right. These weren't bloop doubles and foul-pole homers. These took off like Tiger's irons.

Whether the Nationals can maintain their power pace is moot. But the season is almost a third over so give them some credit. Guillen hasn't been healthy or hot all year. When somebody cools, he may pick up some slack. Meantime, Soriano (.301) is on pace for 121 runs, 111 RBI and 38 steals. Johnson (.302) projects to 121 runs. Zimmerman (up to .272) has had three RBI three times in the last four days and is on pace for 98, which might give him rookie of the year. The 21-year-old ended yesterday's game with another one of Those Plays, this time diving to snare a smash over the bag followed by a throw from foul ground.

Every season provides different pleasures, often completely unexpected. Who dreamed '05 would provide a wild-card race? Now, an '06 season that looked like six months of frustration has, in a few weeks, begun to have a totally different identity. While the team's pitching may remain a mystery a bit longer, the homer secret is now out of the bottle. Look out Class of '59.

"We have guys with RFK power now," said Robinson. "When they put a good swing on it, the ball goes out of the park."

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