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Break up the Nationals

| Monday, April 18, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Over and over during spring training, Frank Robinson would tell anyone who would listen: If his Washington Nationals could do all the little things the right way, they could compete with any team.

No big boppers or Cy Young Award winners on this roster, Robinson would say, almost boasting. Can't count on three-run homers or shutouts. Nope, but with key hits, defense and pitching, these Nationals could be more than merely ex-Expos.

And he was saying it again Sunday after the Nationals' 7-3 victory over Arizona completed a series sweep, stretched their winning streak to five games and improved their NL East-leading record to 8-4.

"We have to chip away and do the little things to get a run in," Robinson said. "Right now we're doing a lot of things right."

Eight starters produced at least one hit; only slumping Cristian Guzman didn't, but even he contributed an RBI with a bases-loaded walk. Four players drove in runs. The bullpen and sparkling defense got out of a first-and-third, none-out jam in the seventh -- perhaps not coincidentally, the same inning in which the Nationals sent 11 batters to the plate and scored six runs without the benefit of a homer.

"It's a great team 'W,"' Jose Vidro said. "Everybody put a little something there."

He had two hits in the seventh, including a two-run single, and drove in Washington's first run with a sacrifice fly in the fourth.

The capital's first major-league team in 34 years is having a grand ol' time and so are its fans. Yesterday's crowd of 35,463 followed those of 45,596 for the home opener Thursday, and 34,943 on Saturday. That's 116,002 for three games -- or more than one-seventh of what the Expos totaled for 81 home dates in Montreal and Puerto Rico last season.

"When I look at the stands and see everybody jumping up and down, it's incredible," said Vidro, the team's longest-tenured player. "I looked at that and said, 'This is beautiful."'

The 2004 Expos (67-95) pulled off only three sweeps of three-game series -- and twice the opponent was an Arizona club that went 51-111. Montreal only had one winning streak all season longer than the Nationals' current one.

Such stretches are indeed built on "little things," as Washington demonstrated in each half of the seventh yesterday.

Starter Esteban Loaiza (three no-decisions) allowed three runs on eight hits and worked his way in and out of trouble: Diamondbacks leadoff hitter Craig Counsell had three hits, including a two-run single in the second, but was stranded each time.

With Arizona up 3-1 in the seventh and runners on the corners, Robinson removed Loaiza. In came Joe Horgan, whose two-seam fastball got Luis Gonzalez to slap a grounder to Guzman. The shortstop looked the runner on third back to the bag, then stepped on second for one out and threw to first for another.

"That's huge," Robinson said. "It really picked up the team, and it may have taken a little heart out of the Diamondbacks."

Horgan's day was done after two pitches, and T.J. Tucker (1-0) got the win by facing just one batter, too: Troy Glaus, who flied out.

"We have to do that every time -- hold them right down, and let the offense do their job," Tucker said.

That it did, breaking out with a big seventh inning for the second game in a row: On Saturday, the Nationals' seven-run seventh fueled a 9-3 win. Neither outburst included a homer.

As Arizona starter Brad Halsey (six-plus innings, three runs) put it: "It's definitely a good lineup. They are tough all the way through."

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