Taking Their Show on the Road
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
PHILADELPHIA, March 31 -- Over the past few seasons, when the Washington Nationals won games, they had something of a formula. They would coax a passable performance from an anonymous starting pitcher, squeak out a few runs from an offense seemingly incapable of explosions, and then hand matters over to a bullpen that, quietly, became one of the best in the game.
Over the winter, however, the Nationals boasted 2008 would be different. More options, more offense and, yes, maybe even the occasional explosion. Witness Monday's events at Citizens Bank Park, where the defending National League East champion Philadelphia Phillies figured to open the season in grand style. Three hours later, the Nationals had delivered an 11-6 flogging that featured all the elements of an overhauled offense and yielded the Nationals' first 2-0 start since the team arrived in Washington.
"On paper, everybody is putting us as the worst offense," said center fielder Lastings Milledge, who hit his first homer as a National. "It's good to score 11 runs. It's good to score a lot of runs in one inning and show people that we can hit -- and that we're not going to put up with not scoring runs."
Before hailing this outfit as the '27 Yankees -- or, heck, even an above-average unit -- it is worth noting that in Sunday night's opener, 24 Nationals went down in order against Atlanta right-hander Tim Hudson and the Braves bullpen. But the feeling within the Washington clubhouse is that there is far more potential to pull off the feats they did Monday. They surged to a 6-2 lead against Phillies right-hander Brett Myers and reliever Ryan Madson. They watched the bullpen uncharacteristically give the lead back. And then -- yes, here it comes -- they exploded for five runs in the ninth against closer Tom Gordon, who is standing in for the injured Brad Lidge, by methodically ripping out four doubles in the inning.
"It's a more competitive lineup than what we had last year," Manager Manny Acta said.
Thus, the Nationals just might be more competitive. The District hasn't been home to a 2-0 major league franchise since 1962, when the Washington Senators beat the Detroit Tigers in the first baseball game at what was then known as D.C. Stadium, then hit the road and won at Cleveland. Put Monday's result together with Sunday night's euphoria -- a 3-2 victory over the Braves decided on Ryan Zimmerman's game-ending homer, a ludicrously enjoyable way to open Nationals Park -- and the Nationals have now provided a start to the season unlike almost any known to living, breathing Washington baseball fans.
"It's only two games," Acta said, which, of course, is 1.2 percent of the season. "Long year," said Nick Johnson, the rejuvenated first baseman.
But by this point in 2007, it was already a long way toward being a long year for the Nationals. That team ultimately received praise for exceeding expectations, even as it finished 16 games under .500. But in its first nine games -- eight of them losses -- it scored more than three runs once. It took until May 23 -- 47 games into the season -- for the Nationals to hang double digits on the board. Now, they have two wins in March. In 2007, their second win came April 12.
"We're a better team this year," right fielder Austin Kearns said. "We expect to do better. We come here and we expect to win."
Monday's win developed in several ways. Kearns capped a four-run fifth that gave the Nationals a 4-2 lead with a two-run double on a fastball from Myers he scalded to right-center. And in the sixth, the Nationals showed perhaps the most significant difference in this offense over last year's, which scored the fewest runs in the majors.
With two outs and Madson on the mound, Washington shortstop Cristian Guzmán hit a grounder into the hole at short, where 2007 NL MVP Jimmy Rollins gloved it. Guzmán, though, tore down the line. Throw him out, the inning's over. Beat the throw, the Nationals live. Guzmán beat it.
"Huge," Acta said. "That was probably the play of the game."
In years past, maybe not. But in the Nationals' current configuration -- even in a situation in which two of the most powerful hitters, Wily Mo Peña and Elijah Dukes, are on the disabled list -- they can take advantage of such situations. Up came Milledge. In came a 1-1 pitch from Madson. Out went the ball, deep to left, a two-run shot.
That allowed Washington's bullpen some wiggle room, something it normally doesn't need. After starter Matt Chico gave one run back on Chase Utley's homer, right-hander Joel Hanrahan -- who had scarcely been touched in spring training -- helped give back the rest by walking Jayson Werth to start the seventh. Toss in an RBI double from Carlos Ruiz, mix in Rollins's two-run homer off lefty Ray King, and -- voila -- there's the Nationals' second blown save in as many games.
"We've blown a couple saves," King said, "but we haven't blown any games."
Instead, the Nationals caused the Phillies to blow it. Johnson's second double of the day drove in Milledge with the lead run in the ninth, and that opened it up. Paul Lo Duca, Ronnie Belliard and pinch hitter Dmitri Young all followed with run-scoring doubles.
Two games, two cities, two ballparks, two very different styles. But two wins.
"Everybody's counting us out," Milledge said, "so that gives us much more momentum to come in and really try to shut people up and to show people not only that we'll come out and play hard -- but that we can come out and play to win, also."