Nats prevail in baseball's return to DC

Nationals prevail in return to DC

WASHINGTON -- Manager Frank Robinson said the first regular-season game at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium since 1971 would not be meaningful unless the Nationals won.

The Nationals did just that as they defeated the Diamondbacks, 5-3, on Thursday night in front of 45,596 in their home debut.

Vinny Castilla went 3-for-3 and drove in four runs, while Livan Hernandez pitched 8 1/3 strong innings, allowing a three-run homer to Chad Tracy in the ninth. Chad Cordero recorded the final two outs to earn his second save of the season.

"The win put the icing on the day, especially with the team playing its first game in Washington, where it had no baseball for 34 years," Robinson said. "To go out here and win with this atmosphere -- the president out here, other dignitaries in the stands and real baseball fans out there cheering -- it was a special situation where you wanted to win the game. It's nice when you go out there and do it. It keeps the enthusiasm as high, and the expectations even higher."

The evening started with a lot of pomp and circumstance. Former Senators players from Mickey Vernon to Frank Howard were introduced, and President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch. Bush also went into the Nationals locker room and shook everybody's hand.

Outfielder Brad Wilkerson was surprised that Bush, an avid baseball fan and a former co-owner of the Rangers, knew who he was.

"He said, 'You are a great player. Keep up the good work.' Coming from a guy like that who has so many things going on, it really shows that he pays attention to the game," Wilkerson said. "He loves the game of baseball. Being an ex-owner, he really keeps up with baseball. He has really put his foot into some of the issues of baseball. He loves the game. For someone to tell me I'm a good player means a lot."

On Wednesday, the Nationals were very good against Javier Vazquez, who played with the Expos for six seasons.

The game was scoreless until the fourth inning, when the Nationals scored three runs. After Jose Vidro doubled and Jose Guillen was hit by a pitch, Castilla, who missed the last two games because of a sore shoulder, tripled to right field to drive in two runs.

Brian Schneider followed with a sacrifice fly to drive in Castilla and give the Nationals a three-run cushion.

In the sixth, after Ryan Church singled with two outs, Castilla capped off the night by hitting Vazquez's 0-2 pitch over the left-field wall for his second home run of the season. Castilla became the first member of the Nationals to hit a home run at RFK and receive a curtain call from the fans.

RFK was rocking and rolling so much after the home run that the stands on the third-base side could be seen going up and down.

"It was a changeup and I hit it pretty good," Castilla said. "Hitting the home run was an unbelievable experience. There was excitement for today's game. Taking a picture with the president and over 40,000 people in the stands -- it's an experience I will never forget."

Castilla finished a single short of the cycle. In his last at-bat in the eighth, Castilla was hit by a Lance Cormier pitch. Castilla was angry after being hit, but he wasn't sure if the pitch was intentional.

"Hitting for the cycle was on my mind. I was one hit away from the cycle. I don't know if it was on purpose or not," Castilla said.

As for Hernandez, he allowed three hits, struck out five and walked six. He threw 121 pitches, 71 for strikes. Hernandez said his sinker and curveball were working, but that his slider gave him problems.

"I'm going to put a little extra on the slider and be ready for the next start," Hernandez said.

Hernandez had a one-hitter after eight innings, but he got into trouble in the ninth after walking Luis Gonzalez.

Hernandez thought he struck Gonzalez out, but home plate umpire Jim Joyce called the pitch a ball, and Gonzalez eventually walked with one out.

"It wasn't a ball. It was a curveball in the middle of the plate and he didn't call it," Hernandez said.

After allowing a single to Shawn Green, Hernandez gave up a three-run homer to Chad Tracey.

Hernandez was so angry with Joyce that Hernandez didn't tip his cap to the fans after Robinson took him out of the game with one out.

Hernandez's anger didn't dampen the spirits in the locker room after the game. For most of the players, it the first time they played in front of a sellout crowd in a home opener.

"I can't say enough," said second baseman Jose Vidro said, who been with the organization since 1997. "I'm enjoying it. Hopefully, I can go home and watch the highlights. It was great. It was a great feeling. The main thing is that we won the ballgame for the city, for us, for everybody. It's great."

Said Wilkerson, who joined the Expos in 2001: "It's very pleasing to see the fans the way they were tonight. I think it's going to continue. That's the most important thing about it. In Montreal, we open up with 35,000 fans and 10 the next night, we'll have 8,000-10,000. I don't think its going to taper off in Washington. There's a lot of excitement about this town and about this team."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.