Nats bring home treat: 5-4 mark

Road trip was long, tough

RFK appreciation awaits


April 14, 2005|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - It almost seemed like a cruel joke.

This rudderless ship of a baseball franchise finally gets relocated to a city that cares after playing multi-country home games for two years, and its renaissance season kicks off with a three-city, nine-game tour against some of the league's best teams.

But the penance is now over and the Washington Nationals return home today with an early and unexpected share of first place in the tough National League East.

The last laugh is 150-plus games out of reach, but by hammering the Atlanta Braves, 11-4, yesterday to take two of three games at Turner Field, the Nationals (5-4) should be allowed at least a satisfied smirk.

"It's awesome," said Nationals outfielder Brad Wilkerson. "As far as I can remember, it's the biggest road series we've had in the last couple of years - to come out with a winning road trip and get off to a good start and give us some confidence."

After winning two of three in Philadelphia and one against Florida, the Nationals lost their first game in Atlanta. But they rallied to win the last two for the franchise's first series victory over the Braves since the beginning of the 2003 season.

"It shows that we've got a new franchise and we're ready to start with a new record," said catcher Brian Schneider. "No doubt about it; this isn't the Expos anymore."

It's only one road trip, but this team won just eight of 26 road series last season on its way to a 67-95 record.

"We'll take it," Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. "We would have liked it to have been a little better, but we'll take 5-4, especially opening up on the road against the quality of teams we played against. It was a nice road trip."

Fittingly, the player who best understands what it's like to be a baseball vagabond has powered the team's encouraging start. While the Expos were shuffled between Montreal and Puerto Rico the past couple of years, enigmatic right fielder Jose Guillen has bounced around seven organizations since 1999.

He is hoping to stick in Washington, and is making an early case. Guillen drove in four runs and had two homers yesterday - a bases-empty shot in the seventh off reliever Adam Bernero and a two-run homer off Roman Colon in a six-run ninth.

"We have somebody who can carry us a little bit," Robinson said. "[Guillen] has instilled in this ballclub that he can get the big hit for us, he can drive in the big run and everybody has to focus on him when he comes to home plate, even with nobody on. You feel like he's going to do something special."

Robinson said he was most impressed with Guillen's sacrifice fly on an 0-2 count in the fifth that gave the Nationals a lead they never surrendered. After Jamey Carroll and Jose Vidro hit back-to-back triples to lead off the inning against Atlanta starter John Thomson (1-1), Guillen hit the two-strike fly to right to score Vidro.

"To me, that was a professional at-bat ..." Robinson said. "He didn't try to do too much with it. He went right with it, hit the ball and scored the run. Very impressive."

Seven of the Nationals' 12 hits went for extra bases, including a three-run triple by pinch-hitter Terrmel Sledge in the ninth. Even Washington starter Tomo Ohka helped with his bat. He had two singles and is now 3-for-5 this season at the plate.

Ohka registered the first win for a Nationals starter despite walking six batters in six innings. He gave up four hits and three runs.

"He was all over the place and didn't get into a good groove at all," Robinson said. "But he only gave up four hits. He kept me on the edge of my seat for six innings."

Now, the Nationals enter their home-opener with some momentum.

"We gutted this road trip out. We were behind a couple games and never gave up," Wilkerson said. "I think teams are going to take notice of that. We've just got to keep plugging away, go back home and take care of business."

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