A story in the June 9 Sports section incorrectly indicated the Washington Nationals hit three home runs at RFK Stadium on June 8 for the first time. The Nationals also hit three home runs in a home game on April 29. (Published 6/11/2005)
Nationals 7, Athletics 2
At one point, from his vantage point in left field, Ryan Church looked at the scoreboard, saw his Washington Nationals leading by four runs, then looked to the mound, and saw Esteban Loaiza hurling against the Oakland Athletics. How could this be?
"It felt awkward," Church said.
To the vastly under-supported Loaiza, it finally felt just fine. The Nationals, the masters of those one-run thrillers that keep the fans at RFK murmuring and Manager Frank Robinson reaching for the Rolaids, came up with a laugher last night, getting seven solid innings from Loaiza and finally supporting him with 12 hits -- including four by Church -- in a 7-2 victory over the A's in front of 28,749.
The logical progression, then, would be to discuss how Loaiza overcame a two-run homer in the first to allow just four hits and two runs in his seven innings, picking up his first victory since May 2. But now, no water-cooler talk about the Nationals can progress too far without speaking about their position in the standings, what with their winning streak at a season-high six, with nine wins in their last 10 games. Washington leads its division by 11/2 games over Philadelphia and two over both Atlanta and the New York Mets -- a paper-thin margin in most divisions, a vast expanse in the NL East.
"I've never been a part of a club at the major league level that's had as much confidence as this team," center fielder Brad Wilkerson said. "It seems like nothing fazes us. We're very confident."
If they're not confident now, they never will be. The offensive outburst was marked by three home runs -- the first time the Nationals had accomplished such a feat at spacious RFK. Church, who went 4 for 5 with three RBI and fell a double short of the cycle, hit a solo shot, his fifth, in the third. Catcher Brian Schneider, who hadn't homered since April 29, followed with a two-run blast that gave Loaiza a 4-2 lead in the fourth. And third baseman Vinny Castilla, who had hit one homer since April 16, followed with his fifth, a solo shot in the seventh.
Prior to last night, no starting pitcher in the National League received fewer runs on average than the 2.07 the Nationals gave Loaiza when he was in games. That's how a pitcher can have a 3.48 ERA, as Loaiza does, and be 2-4. When Loaiza took the mound for his seventh and final inning, in which he struck out the first two men, he was staked to a 6-2 advantage.
"It was like, 'Here you go, big boy,' " Church said. "You got it -- finally."
But part of the discussion after the game was about how the Nationals built the lead, and primarily such mundane topics as -- the weather. RFK has allowed fewer homers than any other major league park, and the players have discussed everything, from wind patterns to the distances to the wall, which some suspect might be mislabeled. Robinson and hitting coach Tom McCraw -- who both played at RFK when the home team wore jerseys bearing the name "Senators" -- preached patience. When it warms up, they said, the ball will start jumping.
"The ball just travels better," Robinson said.
When Loaiza threw his first pitch last night, the temperature was 89. It was more than a tad humid. The first man up, Jason Kendall, singled to center. The second man, Bobby Crosby, homered over the center field wall, a spot where few balls have traveled this season.
"It was hot," Loaiza explained, and maybe there's something to that theory.
"I think it flew a little better tonight," Wilkerson said. "Schneider killed his ball, and it barely made it. Same with Vinny's."
Thus, the foundation for a summer-long discussion. Will the ball continue to fly better?
"I don't know," Church said. "I have no idea."
Loaiza, for one, hopes it doesn't. And last night, he made sure it didn't continue. After Crosby's homer, his first of the year, Loaiza allowed two singles in the fourth, but got out of the mess with a double play. Other than that, no more hits.
"He got better as he went along," Robinson said. "He got stronger."
And finally, he pitched in a game with very little suspense. There were only two tenuous moments after the Nationals built their lead. In the fifth, A's reliever Keiichi Yabu hit right fielder Jose Guillen in the left hand with a pitch, and Guillen stepped toward the mound. Robinson rushed out, as did several Nationals, ready to throw down.
Guillen, who has now been hit by a pitch eight times this year, said he eventually calmed down. He understands pitchers are going to try to get him out inside.
"There's nothing I can do about it," he said, though he was clearly frustrated. He said he would decide whether he could play in today's series finale prior to game time.
The other bit of suspense? Church's at-bat in the eighth, when he came up to the plate needing a double for the cycle. "I was totally aware of it," he said, and how couldn't he be? The crowd rose to its feet, and he heard some yell, "Come on! Let's get the cycle."
Alas, all Church could manage was a single up the middle. And the way things are going for the Nationals now, that's about the only disappointment to be found.