Bobby Stokes made his coach look like a genius last night, and the Washington Diplomats came up big winners.

Moved up to the front line by Gordon Bradley in place of slump-ridden Paul Cannell, Stokes scored the first hat trick of his professional career in keying the Dips' 5-1 rout of the Tampa Bay Rowdies. An RFK Stadium crowd of 10,737 attended,

The Dips were in command almost from the start, making the Rowdies, top team in the American Conference of the North American Soccer League, look silly. Washington scored two goals in a 1:47 span of the first half, then poured it on in the second half as the visitors wilted in the stifling humidity.

"They looked tired in the first half," Bradley said. "They were obviously affected by the humidity. We're used to it."

The Diplomat record rose to 18-9, good for 160 standings points, and virtually sealed home field for them in the first round of the playoffs. Tampa Bay dropped to 19-8 for 164 points.

Stokes was delighted when Bradley told him of his move from midfield to the front line. He had not scored a goal in 16 games, since May 23.

'When you're having a bad time a change in often welcome and this one was," Stokes said. "I felt relaxed and confident up there. But it's the breaks of the game. It could easily have been Paul in those spots. Who knows?"

Bradley seemed to know. He decided on Tuesday to bench Cannell, scoreless in four games, in favor of Stokes.

"We've played our best games as a team with Bobby up front. It worked out well tonight. He played very well and so did (Alan) Green even though he didn't score for a ninth straight game."

Stokes was not the only one to break out of a slump. Midfielder Josef Horvath, goalless in seven games, delivered the key goal of the night -- the Dips' second -- and two assists. Horvath was his old self, booming left-footed shots at Tampa Bay goalie Winston DuBose from all angles.

The game turned during a 1 minute 47 second period of the first half. The early going had been extremely rough, the Dips' Jimmy Steele and the Rowdies' Jan Van Der Veen being ejected at 17:31 after engaging in a kicking and shoving match "won" by Steele when Van Der Veen went down with a bruised knee.

Moments later Green drew two Tampa Bay defenders to him in the box and slid a pass to Sonny Askew, whose shot was blocked. Askew got the ball back, though, and slid it to Stokes, who blasted a 10-yard shot past DuBose for his sixth goal of the season.

"The first goal took and awful lot of weight off me," Stokes said. "It had been a very long time. At least then I knew I Would be on the score sheet."

Horvath joined him on the score sheet less than two minutes later, taking a pass from Sakib Viteskic -- back in the lineup after missing 11 games -- and booted a 25-yard shot past DuBose, who did an excellent imitation of a statue.

"They just folded up and died at that point," said Washington defender Don Droege, who scored Washington's fourth goal off a superb pass from Horvath. "We just worked harder than they did tonight." CAPTION: Picture, Sonny Askew shoots from perimeter of box only to encounter point-blank stop by Wes McLeod. By Richard Darcey -- The Washington Post