Home Away From Home

Nationals Manager Frank Robinson tips his cap to the crowd after a video was shown of his years as an Orioles player and manager.
Nationals Manager Frank Robinson tips his cap to the crowd after a video was shown of his years as an Orioles player and manager. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, June 24, 2006

BALTIMORE The old video of Frank Robinson hitting a home run for the Orioles at Memorial Stadium ran on the scoreboard before the bottom of the third inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Friday night before a full house of 48,331. The image of the Washington manager brought nothing but cheers as the Nationals' 70-year-old leader waved his hat to the fans from the dugout.

That friendly moment set the tone for an evening of convivial, pleasant-living non-rivalry between the Orioles and Nats in the ballpark that, until last season, many Washington fans viewed as their home away from home. And which, based on many red "W" hats in the yard, plenty of Nationals followers apparently still see as an appropriate second baseball destination.

No Nationals player was booed when introduced. When the second Washington batter got a hit and Nats fans in the crowd began a modest, not-too-rude cheer, there was no hostile rebuttal. When the Orioles scored the game's first run, it was met with normal but mild home-crowd enthusiasm. The cheers were louder for the between-innings scoreboard hot-dog race.

Finally, in the seventh inning, when Washington scored to cut its deficit top 2-1, the applause of Nats fans was met with an appropriate though restrained number of boos. Apparently, there are limits to hospitality, even in Charm City.

When the Orioles came to Washington in May, there was an extra element of friction throughout the game -- the sense that the Orioles were a symbol of all the years of opposition to a team in Washington by Baltimore ownership. The Orioles' business motives were obvious but the resentment was real, nonetheless. An "O" chant from Oriole fans during the anthem at RFK brought a thunderous instant-reflect boo from the crowd. This sweaty summer night here brought no animosity in any form. By the late innings, fans of both teams were doing the wave together, probably in hopes of creating a hint of a breeze.

This week, Orioles owner Peter Angelos even had kind words for the Nats' new owners and expressed hope they could find ways to be of mutual benefit. Other than teaming up to turn public sentiment against Comcast and perhaps get Nats games on TV in the Washington market before the next millennium, what common bond leaps to mind? Could the Ode to Frank and the absence of even the slightest crowd-inciting display be a hint of more than a truce? Economics make strange bedfellows.

If anything, the two teams seemed almost polite, as if each commiserated with the other's season-long frustrations and wanted to make the other guys feel good. Both teams sent a pitcher to the mound they desperately wanted to see do decently. And neither team foiled the others' hopes.

The Nats have been without their best hurler, John Patterson, for 63 days with forearm tendinitis. The 6-foot-3 right-hander has classic overhand mechanics similar to Orioles great Jim Palmer, who was one of the role models of Patterson's father, Doug, when he pitched in the Orioles organization from '70 to '78. This trip to the disabled list by Patterson also required a Palmer-worthy amount of time to heal as team executives treated his recovery as if the franchise's future depended on it.

But then, given the rest of the Nats' current rotation, which has pitched past the seventh inning in only one start -- one start -- all season, it may be that crucial. Before Patterson went on the disabled list, he had pitched past seven innings twice in his four starts. Last season, by stunning comparison, the Nats had 31 games when starters went more than seven innings. The mere sight of Patterson throwing 82 pitches may have helped the Nats' bullpen more than a bucket of aspirin.

Patterson allowed two runs, only one earned, in six innings with no walks and three strikeouts. His low-90s fastball and curve seemed sharp. If Patterson had fielded a swinging bunt by Nick Markakis cleanly to lead off the third inning, and if Royce Clayton had not kicked a routine ground ball to shortstop to start the sixth, the Orioles wouldn't have scored at all.

"I'm sure this was a special night for my father, watching his son pitch here, and for my mom, too. They were together then. And they were watching on TV tonight," Patterson said. "I actually did sit in the dugout before the game and think about it a little bit. It was cool. People say my motion is a little like Palmer, but I just feel it's my natural delivery." Sure, dad and The Oriole Way probably had nothing to do with the resemblance.

If anything, the Orioles need medicine even more. Rodrigo Lopez has had an abysmal season (5-8, 6.45 ERA) while mystifying himself and his coaches who still think his stuff is good enough to win. Perhaps for motivation, maybe as an honest warning shot across the bow, Orioles Manager Sam Perlozzo had skipped Lopez in his last turn in the rotation.

The right-hander responded with his second-best outing of the season, allowing one run on seven hits in seven innings. The Nats certainly obliged, fielding a lineup without injured slugger Nick Johnson and replacing him at cleanup with .245-hitting Marlon Anderson instead of Daryle Ward (five homers in 58 at-bats), who was acquired in the offseason for exactly such nights when Johnson was absent. To make the fit for Ward even better, he could have been used at DH, just as Anderson was.

Anderson went 0 for 4 in the heart of the order while Ward, in his only at-bat as a pinch hitter, drove in the only run against Lopez on a sacrifice fly. So much for the long-laid plans of general managers vs. the gut instincts of managers.

The Nats came here with three straight losses, but they couldn't match the Orioles for misery. Baltimore had one of the most miserable defeats imaginable on Thursday. Closer Chris Ray, who had not blown a save all season, gave up back-to-back two-out home runs to pinch hitters in the ninth inning as Florida overcame a 5-1 deficit. In the 10th, the Orioles' Todd Williams threw an intended intentional walk pitch far too close to home plate. So Miguel Cabrera slapped it into center field for the game-winning hit. Go on, top that.

"I've seen batters reach out and hit an intentional ball before," said Perlozzo, "but never to win a game."

Because the Orioles were nice enough to come to Washington and lose two out of three games at RFK, the least the Nats could do was to reciprocate with a meek loss to allay the Orioles' nightmares. If Baltimore fans knew how to be gracious hosts, then the Nationals certainly knew how to be the kind of guests who want to be invited back. The Nats went down so quickly in the ninth, looking helpless against Ray, that the capacity crowd barely had time to summon an ovation before the final out.

After their barely discernable effort on this first meeting in Baltimore since '71, the Nats will be more than welcome to return here on Saturday and Sunday. If the Orioles can find a red carpet that is 33 miles long, they may stretch it all the way to Washington just so these accommodating Nationals and all their full-price-paying customers don't lose their way.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company