Marty Niland: It didn’t take long for inaugural Nats to win fans’ hearts

I will always love the Nationals, but I’m still waiting for something that will make me fall in love with this year’s team - something momentous to convince me that this year’s edition of the Nats is capable of doing great things.

In 2005, their first year in Washington, it took just two games for a star to emerge and prove this team was doing more than just taking up residence, but was capable of winning our hearts.

Washington was hungry for baseball after going without since Senators owner Bob Short packed his team off to Texas following the 1971 season.

After decades of failed bids to attract a new team by relocation or expansion, there was still some disbelief when the Montreal Expos’ move to Washington was announced on Sept. 30, 2004, a day before the 33rd anniversary of the Senators’ final game in Washington. We then sweated it out through the political battle over the new ballpark before finally allowing ourselves to believe we’d have a major league team in the nation’s capital for the first time in more than a generation.

The team’s first series was in Philadelphia against the Phillies, an up-and-coming team that would make its first serious run at a division title since winning the National League pennant in 1993. In the first game, the Nats were outmatched and lost 8-4. But in the second, a star would emerge.

That star was Brad Wilkerson, who had demonstrated both defensive and offensive versatility, playing all the outfield positions and first base, with home run power and the hitting skills to lead off. Coming off a 1-for-5 opening game, Wilkerson started the second game innocently enough with a walk but was caught stealing.

The game was still scoreless when Wilkerson came to the plate in the third, when he flashed the power that he had shown 32 times in the previous season, blasting a ball off the facing of the third deck to put the Nats ahead 1-0. That lead held into the fourth, when he lined a single to right but was left stranded.

The Phillies had taken a 3-2 lead off Nats starter Zach Day when Wilkerson came to bat in the seventh and launched a ball off the base of the center field wall. The long carom surprised Phillies center fielder Kenny Lofton, and allowed Wilkerson to slide into third with his third hit of the game.

By the time he came up in the next inning, the Nats had taken a 5-3 lead on Jose Guillen’s two-run homer and Brian Schneider’s RBI single. Wilkerson drove another ball to deep center, this time off the warning track and over the fence for a ground-rule double and an RBI. Not only had he increased the Nats’ lead to 6-3, but Wilkerson had hit for the cycle, the first time a Washington player had accomplished the rare feat since Jim King did it in 1964.

The team went on to win its first game as the Washington Nationals 7-3 and soon took first place in the National League East. The Nats stayed there through the All-Star break, to the surprise of many baseball experts and the delight of their fans, but tailed off in the second half to finish 81-81.

Wilkerson would be traded that offseason with two other players to the Rangers for Alfonso Soriano, who would make history in his own way by hitting 40 home runs and stealing 40 bases.

But Wilkerson’s cycle, in only the team’s second game, showed the baseball starved fans of Washington that the Nationals were capable of winning our hearts with memorable, historic accomplishments.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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