Settling in at home

After fading under a harsh new light in its debut season, the D.C. team is more comfortable in its surroundings

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April 02, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

A year ago, the Washington Nationals were baseball's biggest curiosity: new name, new uniforms and new fans packing an old stadium for the first time in 34 years.

The national media championed the story, and the fascination grew when the club of no-names managed by a Hall of Famer found itself in first place at the All-Star break. Eventually those media darlings wilted in the second half, finishing last in the National League East with an 81-81 record.

Now, a season later, there is less buzz surrounding this version.

"I think last year there was a little more excitement with the team going to D.C. for the first year, so there was a lot of hype surrounding that," Nationals starting pitcher John Patterson said. "This year, with it being the second year, some of that has worn off a little bit."

So has the uncertainty about what the D.C. fans and RFK Stadium would be like.

"That's at least one thing that is better for us.We don't have to guess what is going to happen to us, how it is going to be," said second baseman Jose Vidro, who had spent his entire career with the organization formerly known as the Montreal Expos.

"I think it helps a lot more knowing that we are going to have people in the stands, people that are going to give us support. We feel we have a home, and that's something we didn't have in the past."

The once nomadic Expos - who played parts of the 2003 and 2004 seasons in Puerto Rico and Montreal - have peace of mind now. But with the momentum created by 2005 gone, can this team come close to re-creating its first-half run?

"It's tough to do, because when you do that, when you overachieve, it's hard to repeat," said Nationals manager Frank Robinson, a Hall of Fame player who was perhaps the leading candidate for NL Manager of the Year before the second-half collapse.

Last year's squad seemed overmatched - on paper anyway. Question marks loomed everywhere, and yet Washington thrived during the first half of the season, peaking July 3 with a 50-31 record and 5 1/2- game lead.

"Things just went right for us. There's no way to explain it," Robinson said. "The pitching and defense kept us in games, and we didn't have to score runs. Our offense wasn't that great, but it was timely....It is hard to match that because it was a magical first half. That's the only way I can put it."

Then came midsummer. Injuries mounted. The good luck evaporated.

"The second half looked like somebody turned the switch out on us, turned the lights off. Boop, it was just the opposite," said Robinson, whose team won just 30 of its final 79 games.

During the second half, Robinson and general manager Jim Bowden learned plenty about their team's weaknesses.

For one, it wasn't deep enough to survive a 162-game season. So Bowden spent much of the winter adding veteran bench help, such as infielders Damian Jackson and Royce Clayton, catcher-corner infielders Robert Fick and Matthew LeCroy and reliever Felix Rodriguez.

"It wasn't so much the injuries as not having the guys to retool our team and give a guy a break.We needed that," said veteran reliever Joey Eischen. "Jim Bowden has done a good job bringing some veterans in here, and I think we are going to have a deeper pool in Triple-A to help us out when something does happen."

Also, it was obvious the Nationals needed an offensive boost. They were last in the majors in most hitting categories, and, with the exception of volatile outfielder Jose Guillen, there was no intimidating presence in the lineup.

In response, Bowden traded team leader Brad Wilkerson, fellow outfielder Terrmel Sledge and a minor leaguer to the Texas Rangers in December for slugging second baseman Alfonso Soriano. With Vidro entrenched at second, the plan was for Soriano to move to left field.

But no one told Soriano. He refused to make the switch, and his insistence turned into a national story line. Finally on March 22, two days after refusing to take the field in an exhibition game, Soriano relented and played left.

"It's a relief for everybody. It really is," Robinson said at the time. "We get the distractions away from here and we can focus on baseball now."

Part of the focus this spring, however, is on who didn't go north with the Nationals. Already three fairly key players are seriously injured: top setup man Luis Ayala (elbow) and starting pitcher Brian Lawrence (shoulder) appear lost for the season, and shortstop Cristian Guzman (shoulder) might be, too.

Fick (elbow) will start the season on the disabled list, and Guillen has been limited by a wrist injury. At one point during spring training, Robinson was asked whether there were new injuries to discuss. "Not right now. Wait five minutes," he quipped.

As in any spring camp, however, there is hope, too.

Rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, a 2005 first-round draft pick, crushed the ball during the exhibition season. Patterson and Livan Hernandez, the club's top two starters, pitched extremely well. And Vidro finally looks healthy.

The club still is unsettled in the back end of the rotation.Moving Clayton to replace Guzman at short weakens the bench. And the interminable wait for an owner goes on.

Some of the same problems from 2005 remain. But baseball in Washington is a year older. And the Nationals believe they are a year wiser.

"Everybody knows what happened in the second half. Everybody knows," Hernandez said. "So when you know, you can fix everything and put it together and continue to try to do the things you did in the first half. Everybody is waiting for that."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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