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Hernandez flawless until ninth in Nats' home debut

WASHINGTON (AP) -- 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.,
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 last 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."

Game notes
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.