Nats' Loss Includes A Small Gain

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 4, 2007

No amount of ugliness can take away that singular, sweet moment when Kory Casto recreated the motion for perhaps the one millionth time in his 25-year existence. His right leg rose and took a short stride forward. The bat whipped around his body. His wrists exploded through the strike zone. All the while, his head stayed down, steady, on the baseball.

Last night, the Washington Nationals lost their second game of the young season, a 9-3 blowout to the Florida Marlins in which starter Shawn Hill was bedeviled by his defense, in which Marlins left-hander Scott Olsen had as many hits as he allowed to Washington (two). In the season's first two games, the Nationals have been outscored by 13 runs, giving little indication that preseason prognosticators -- who forecast equal parts gloom and doom -- were wrong.

A crowd of 20,894 had hardly gathered at RFK Stadium by the time the Nationals trailed by four runs in the first, and there was little remaining to do but enjoy the evening, have a beer -- and discuss the days when this club might actually be good.

Enter Casto. A series of roster moves prior to the game -- predicated by injuries to center fielder Nook Logan and shortstop Cristian Guzman, who both went on the disabled list on the season's second day -- meant Casto was recalled from Class AAA Columbus before he had even so much as taken batting practice there. Class AA a year ago, Class AAA for a day, and welcome to the big leagues.

"I didn't have time to get nervous," he said.

Casto first appeared on the field at RFK Stadium just after 5 p.m., with batting practice in full swing. He got his hacks in, met a throng of reporters and seemed to smile the entire time. Sure, he had driven the 325 or so miles from Washington to Columbus on Sunday, wife Paige and belongings in tow. The trip back came by private jet -- courtesy of the Columbus club's owners -- and only Paige had to return by car.

Logistics? Casto hardly cared.

"I was pretty ecstatic hearing that one of my goals in life," he said beforehand, "is going to be accomplished today."

If only his major league debut had come in a win, a possibility that was all but eliminated before he had his first at-bat.

But it's hard to blame it on Hill, whose alarming line -- five innings, five runs, four of them earned -- shouldn't define his performance. He began the game by starting dangerous Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez with a pair of strikes -- and then grazed him on the hand. Dan Uggla followed with a ball that shortstop Josh Wilson dived to stop. When Wilson tried to shovel the ball to second with his glove, he not only failed to start the double play, he didn't get the sure out.

"If all the plays are made, we're tied at two after about six or seven innings," Hill said. "But it happens."

Monday, John Patterson fell behind 3-0 after two innings. Last night, Hill fell behind 5-0 in the same time frame, hurt by Wilson's shakiness and a first-inning error by first baseman Dmitri Young.

But Hill -- like Casto, 25 and perhaps one of those who will be around for better days -- wasn't fazed. Of the final 10 men he faced, only two reached base -- one on an error by Wilson -- and both were eliminated on double plays. He struck out three of those men, including the phenomenal Cabrera, who has reached base nine times in 11 plate appearances this year. Hill needed 54 pitches to survive the first two innings, less than half that (26) to get through the next three.

"Good stuff, man," Manager Manny Acta said.

So really, Casto was all that was left to consider. A patient hitter, he swung at the first major league pitch he saw -- and flew out to right. "Lot of anxiousness," he said. But in the fourth, he led off against Olsen. He took a called strike. And then, on the next pitch, he went back to the motion he honed growing up in Aurora, Ore., that left-handed swing that has the Nationals excited.

The ball jumped off his bat, a textbook liner to center. Florida center fielder Alejandro De Aza threw it in. It eventually made its way into Acta's hands, then onto the top shelf of Casto's new locker. He will keep the ball, give the bat to his parents. Even on a night otherwise lost, a first major league hit should be savored -- and saved.

"As a kid growing up, that's what you kind of dream of," Casto said. "You can't picture it exactly, but after it happens, you kind of look back and say, 'That's what it's like to get a hit in the big leagues.' "

© 2007 The Washington Post Company