By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 12, 2006
Long after the Washington Nationals closed out a 6-0 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies yesterday afternoon, thousands of fans milled around the field at RFK Stadium, asking questions of and receiving autographs from the men who are, somehow, on as good a roll as any team in baseball.
From a stage down the left field line, Jose Guillen -- whose day featured two doubles, two RBI and something of a permanent smile -- talked about his favorite players growing up. On top of the first base dugout, Shawn Hill tossed T-shirts to the assembled throng, many of whom had no idea who he was when the day began, but sat up and noticed a masterful seven-inning, two-hit outing.
The event was a celebration for Nationals season ticket holders, and with a blue sky above and another win just past, the club couldn't have stumbled across a nicer, more appropriate day to mix the audience with its heroes. The victory gave the Nationals three wins in the four-game series against the Phillies, made this run nine of 11 overall, and was the latest indication that when this group interacts with others -- be it their fans or their teammates -- there are, for now, only good feelings all around.
"It gives you a lot of confidence, the way this team has been playing," Guillen said. "There's good enthusiasm in the dugout, all those guys keeping everybody loose in there. That's great.
"The beginning of the season, it was really tough here. But it's been great now. I love to see all these guys having fun."
The fun continued yesterday after Hill shut down the slugging Phillies, allowing hits only to mammoth first baseman Ryan Howard -- a single in the second and a double in the fifth -- while walking three and striking out four, his first victory since July 2004, just his second in the majors. In between, there was reconstructive elbow surgery and the long, obscure climb back to the majors that such an injury involves.
"When he went down, it was like, 'Have we lost one?' " Manager Frank Robinson said, remembering that Hill was once a top prospect for the Montreal Expos. "It's good to see him back."
Hill's ERA in his three starts with the Nationals is now just 1.80, though he said he still has much to work on. He is aware that eventually -- perhaps as early as the weekend -- the Nationals will get right-hander John Patterson back from the disabled list, where he has been since late April with forearm tendinitis.
"I've thought about it," Hill said. "But there's not much I can do about it. I just need to throw well, and hopefully that can make the decision tougher on them."
The decision on when to play Guillen, making his first start since returning from the disabled list with a badly strained right hamstring, wasn't as difficult as predicting what would happen when he played.
Last year, Guillen hit 18 homers before the all-star break, when he was arguably the team's best hitter. But Guillen hasn't been a presence this season, even when he was healthy. When he stepped to the plate for his first at-bat of the day, he was hitting only .210 and had a paltry 19 RBI.
"I have to start producing, start helping this team to win," he said before the game.
So he did. In that first at-bat, he blooped a double the opposite way off Cole Hamels, a left-hander for whom the Phillies have high expectations. But the key at-bat of the day came in the third, when Alfonso Soriano and Royce Clayton had drawn two-out walks. Guillen, who fancies himself as a run producer, had failed too often in such situations before he went on the disabled list. In this spot, though, he hit a hard grounder into the left field corner, a two-out double that gave the Nationals a 2-0 lead.
"It's a real big confidence builder, a real positive for him -- and for this ballclub," Robinson said.
From there, the Nationals took control. Nick Johnson scored Guillen by hitting a fly ball that Phillies left fielder Pat Burrell misplayed into a double. Soriano broke an 0-for-10 skid with a two-out, RBI single in the fourth to put the Nationals up 4-0. And with the powerful Phillies -- who had twice come up with five-run innings in the first three games of this series -- still capable of coming back, Robert Fick and Daryle Ward, two mainstays of a bench that is becoming relatively productive, came through with solo homers in the eighth, putting the game out of reach.
Afterward, as various Nationals watched a World Cup match in the home clubhouse and prepared to meet their legions of fans back out on the field, the mood was decidedly light, a long way from the tension-filled days of even a month ago. The turnaround on the field -- the Nationals have won six of seven series and, since beating the Cubs in Chicago on May 18, have baseball's best record at 16-8 -- is nearly inexplicable. But it has clearly provided a different attitude in the clubhouse.
"Obviously, playing well definitely helps the personality of the clubhouse," veteran reliever Mike Stanton said. "Everybody's kind of relaxed and letting their abilities take over. It doesn't matter how much talent you have. This game is too hard to play if you're uptight.
"A couple weeks ago, we got a couple wins, and everybody relaxed a little bit. Now, we're playing ball closer to our abilities than we were."