WASHINGTON -- It didn't take long for this troupe of ex-Expos to figure out they weren't in Montreal anymore.
There was the sellout crowd of 45,596, jumping in place to celebrate each of the Washington Nationals' runs in a 5-3 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Thursday night, making ol' RFK Stadium sway like it hadn't for baseball in 34 years. There were the fireworks, before and after the game, and first place in the NL East.
And then there was the visit from the Commander in Chief.
President Bush walked into the Nationals' clubhouse before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. He shook hands with each player, and stopped at veteran reliever Joey Eischen.
"Eischen, right?" said Bush, a former owner of the Texas Rangers.
"He remembered trading me," Eischen said, his eyes wide. "That was pretty cool. I was some Single-A punk he got rid of to get a major-league pitcher. It was gratifying."
The whole evening just got better and better for the Nationals and their new fans, decked out in a sea of red caps with the same cursive "W" the Senators wore before leaving for Texas in 1971.
"It was amazing to see. Honestly, it was more than I expected. They lived and died with every pitch," left fielder Brad Wilkerson said. "You know it's going to be a great place to play."
Baseball is all about getting home, and this was an all-day celebration of a team longing for stability and a city yearning for a tenant. The District lost two teams to other cities.
Baseball fans in Washington hadn't been able to root, root, root for the home team in more than 12,000 days. And they made up for it Thursday.
They applauded the local high school band that opened the pregame ceremony about 1½ hours before the first pitch. They applauded the high notes in the national anthem. And the flyover by military jets. And the introductions of everyone associated with the Nationals, right down to the assistant clubhouse manager.
"It's a good sports town. Y'all's baseball fans never left. The baseball team did," Eischen said.
Even the visitors took note of the raucous support.
"Us, as players, we're excited not to be playing in Montreal," Arizona outfielder Luis Gonzalez said. "We had what -- 40,000 or 50,000 people tonight? If we had been there, they'd have had 2,000.
Indeed, the Expos averaged fewer than 9,400 fans in 2004, the last of a trying few seasons in Canada. First, the team was destined to be folded. Then, it was forced to play some "home" games in Puerto Rico. Even when Major League Baseball -- which owns the franchise -- decided to shift the Expos to the District, it took drawn-out negotiations with the city council to solidify the estimated $581 million deal that includes a to-be-built stadium.
"I think of everything we went through," commissioner Bud Selig said. "The turmoil, the travail -- it was all worth it."
It sure felt that way to the players when Vinny Castilla's triple rattled around in the right-field corner in the fourth inning, bringing home the Nationals' first two runs in their new digs. The crowd cheered as if their team had won the World Series.
"I just looked at the fans," outfielder Terrmel Sledge said, "and thought, 'We finally have a home-field advantage."'
When the Nationals players entered the ballpark at 1:58 p.m. ET, walking two-by-two down the right-field line, looking around and taking it all in, workers were putting the final touches on RFK's $18 million makeover. One last-minute change: A new ad for an auto maker replaced a poster showing Castilla at the plate.
Maybe they should have left that up.
Castilla, who sat out the past two games with a sore right shoulder, went 3-for-3 with a double in the second, a two-run triple in the fourth and a two-run homer in the sixth -- all off Arizona starter Javier Vazquez (0-2), who once pitched for Montreal.
"An ex-Expo pitching against us," Wilkerson noted. "That was a fit, too."
Starter Livan Hernandez (1-1) was downright dominant for eight innings, allowing one hit and letting only one runner reach third base. But he walked Gonzalez leading off the ninth before Shawn Green singled and Chad Tracy hit a three-run homer with one out.
That was Hernandez's second troubling stretch of the day. He had a hard time driving to the game -- something he wasn't used to in Montreal.
"There was some traffic," Hernandez said. "I don't know if it's going to be like that."
Chad Cordero came on for the last two outs, earning his second save, though he did bring the tying run to the plate by giving up a single to Quinton McCracken. Cordero ended it by getting pinch-hitter Tony Clark to fly out to center.
Hernandez was a stalwart for the Expos, leading the NL in complete games and innings the past two years. Castilla was one of the additions Nationals general manager Jim Bowden made in the offseason, trying to improve a 67-95 team with a $50 million budget.
Castilla, who led the NL in RBI for Colorado last season, gave Washington a 2-0 lead with his triple, driving in Jose Vidro and Jose Guillen. It was fitting that Vidro scored the first run -- drafted by the Expos in 1992, he's the longest-tenured member of the franchise.
"When I got out there, I saw the people, the stadium packed, and really I can feel that appreciation that we're here," Vidro said. "All those things together, this is something that we were looking forward to for a long, long time."
The Diamondbacks' four-game winning streak ended. ... Needing a single to complete the cycle, Castilla was hit on the left shoulder by a pitch from reliever Lance Cormier.
Vinny Castilla and Livan Hernandez make sure the packed D.C. crowd goes home happy. (AP)
|Players of the Game|
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|Craig Counsell, 2B||4||0||0||0||0||1||0||.300|
|Royce Clayton, SS||4||0||0||0||0||1||0||.206|
|Luis Gonzalez, LF||2||1||1||0||2||0||0||.353|
|Troy Glaus, 3B||2||0||0||0||2||1||2||.263|
|Shawn Green, RF||3||1||1||0||1||1||1||.294|
|Chad Tracy, 1B||3||1||1||3||1||0||1||.355|
|Chris Snyder, C||4||0||0||0||0||1||3||.318|
|Quinton McCracken, CF||4||0||1||0||0||0||0||.263|
|Javier Vazquez, P||2||0||0||0||0||0||0||.250|
|Randy Choate, P||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||.000|
|a- Alex Cintron, PH||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||.125|
|Lance Cormier, P||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||.000|
|b- Tony Clark, PH||1||0||0||0||0||0||1||.500|
|a-popped out for Choate in the 8th|
|b-flied out for Cormier in the 9th|
|HR - Chad Tracy (2, Hernandez)|
|RBI - Chad Tracy 3 (7)|
|Team LOB - 6|
|DP - Clayton-Counsell-Tracy, Counsell-Clayton-Tracy|
|Javier Vazquez (L,0-2)||6||8||5||5||1||8||1||11.77|
|HBP - Guillen (by Javier Vazquez), Castilla (by Lance Cormier)|
|Pitches-Strikes - Javier Vazquez 92-65, Randy Choate 20-11, Lance Cormier 11-6|
|Ground Balls-Fly Balls - Javier Vazquez 1-8, Randy Choate 3-0, Lance Cormier 1-1|
|Batters Faced - Javier Vazquez 27, Randy Choate 4, Lance Cormier 4|
|Brad Wilkerson, LF||4||0||0||0||0||1||0||.333|
|Nick Johnson, 1B||4||0||1||0||0||2||0||.281|
|Jose Vidro, 2B||2||1||1||0||2||1||0||.297|
|Jose Guillen, RF||3||1||0||0||0||1||2||.333|
|Terrmel Sledge, RF||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||.273|
|Ryan Church, CF||4||1||2||0||0||0||2||.238|
|Vinny Castilla, 3B||3||2||3||4||0||0||0||.393|
|Brian Schneider, C||3||0||1||1||0||0||2||.258|
|Cristian Guzman, SS||4||0||1||0||0||2||2||.128|
|Livan Hernandez, P||3||0||0||0||0||1||2||.167|
|Chad Cordero, P||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||.000|
|2B - Jose Vidro (4, Vazquez), Vinny Castilla (3, Vazquez)|
|3B - Vinny Castilla (1, Vazquez)|
|HR - Vinny Castilla (2, Vazquez)|
|SF - Brian Schneider (1)|
|RBI - Vinny Castilla 4 (7), Brian Schneider (3)|
|2-OUT RBI - Vinny Castilla 2 (2)|
|Team LOB - 6|
|DP - Guzman-Vidro-N. Johnson|
|Livan Hernandez (W,1-1)||8.1||3||3||3||6||5||1||4.50|
|Chad Cordero (S,2)||0.2||1||0||0||0||0||0||1.23|
|IBB - Tracy by Livan Hernandez|
|Pitches-Strikes - Livan Hernandez 121-71, Chad Cordero 12-8|
|Ground Balls-Fly Balls - Livan Hernandez 12-7, Chad Cordero 1-1|
|Batters Faced - Livan Hernandez 33, Chad Cordero 3|
|Attendance - 45596|
|Game Time - 2:33|
|Temperature - 62|
|Umpires - Home - Jim Joyce, First Base - Lazaro Diaz, Second Base - Bob Davidson, Third Base - Dana DeMuth|