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Five years ago, the Washington Nationals were on top of the world

More than 320,000 fans watched José Guillén and the Nats reel off 10 straight wins in '05, including sweeps of Florida, Oakland and Seattle.
More than 320,000 fans watched José Guillén and the Nats reel off 10 straight wins in '05, including sweeps of Florida, Oakland and Seattle. (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The closer is in the capital of California, awaiting a midday, midweek special between the homestanding Sacramento River Cats and his own Tacoma Rainiers. The would-be ace rises each morning in his home town, more than 100 miles east of Houston, works out with his wife, and starts each work day at 3:30 p.m., teaching kids how to pitch a baseball.

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The second baseman is retired, back in his native Puerto Rico. The center fielder retired as well -- not once, but twice -- and is raising his family in Florida. The first baseman is on the disabled list -- again -- but this time with the world champion New York Yankees. The starting catcher is a backup in Philadelphia. The backup catcher sells medical supplies in suburban Chicago. The third baseman assists Colorado's general manager. The manager assists the commissioner of baseball. The general manager hosts a radio show from his adopted home town of Hollywood.

And in some fashion, each of them carries with them the memory of five springs ago, a time when, as Liván Hernández -- the man who threw the first major league pitch in Washington in 34 years -- said, "We come to the stadium, and we know we were going to win that game."

"It was electric, just magical," said Frank Robinson, the manager of the 2005 Washington Nationals. "It was like a fantasy-type time."

Next week, shiny Nationals Park -- less than four miles from its dank and dusty predecessor, RFK Stadium -- will teem with excitement when Stephen Strasburg takes the mound for his first major league appearance, the first true baseball event in the District since the Nationals brought the sport back five years ago.

Of the men in uniform for the Nationals during Strasburg's debut, only two -- Hernández and Cristian Guzmán -- were also wearing Nationals red-and-white on April 14, 2005. Some of Strasburg's new teammates know the abject misery of back-to-back 100-loss seasons. Some of them believe -- in part because of Strasburg's right arm -- that better times are well within reach.

But most of them have no recollection that, beginning five years ago Wednesday, the Nationals went on a 10-game winning streak that thrust them into first place in the National League East.

"Really?" said Ryan Zimmerman, the current third baseman, Gold Glove winner and all-star.

Yes, Zim. And you were drafted in the middle of that streak. "Was I?"

Most of these Nationals have forgotten, if they ever realized, that the 2005 team -- the erstwhile, vagabond Montreal Expos -- reached the midway point of the season on pace to win 100 games. The guys that were here -- many of whom are out of the game and have scattered all over the country -- will never forget.

"You have good years and bad years as far as stats-wise, and team-wise," said Brian Schneider, the starting catcher on those Nationals, a backup for the Phillies now. "But to this day, people talk about Washington, and they ask me what it's like, and I always say, 'Hey, it's an unbelievable place to play.' That's what we got out of that year. It was unbelievable."

A weird dynamic

On Tuesday , the version of the Nationals that Strasburg will join stands at 26-26, tied for fourth place in the National League East -- a nice start, certainly above expectations. On the morning of June 2, 2005, the Nationals stood at 27-26, in third place -- also a nice start, but nothing that garnered much attention outside the District.


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