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NATS MOVE INTO OLD, NEW HOME

The wait ended at 7:06 p.m., when Livan Hernandez threw a down-the-middle-fastball to taking-all-the-way Craig Counsell.

All over RFK Stadium, flashbulbs popped like fireflies on a summer night. Umpire Jim Joyce raised his right arm and called a strike. The crowd cheered wildly.

After 33 seasons away, major league baseball was back in the nation's capital.

And after a decade of uncertainty, and two seasons of vagabond living, the team formerly known as the Montreal Expos had a home.

They go by the name Washington Nationals now, and Thursday night being a Washington National was a pretty good thing.

And we're not even talking about the fact that the Nationals won their home opener, 5-3, over Arizona to move into sole possession of first place in the National League East.

Baseball moves to the forefront tonight when the Nationals play their second home game. Thursday night was for pomp and circumstance, ceremony and nostalgia.

"The win," said manager Frank Robinson, "just put the icing on the day."

The Nationals came home to the giddy embrace of a sellout crowd. President Bush made the drive over from the White House. He visited both clubhouses and threw out the ceremonial first pitch, rekindling a tradition that started with William Howard Taft in 1910. Fireworks exploded and jets flew overhead.

Even the visiting Diamondbacks were caught up in the atmosphere.

"It feels very similar to a World Series game," Counsell said.

Reliever Mike Koplove was thrilled the Diamondbacks were on the guest list.

"We got lucky," he said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

The Nationals won behind Hernandez's arm and Vinny Castilla's bat. Hernandez pitched 8 1/3 strong innings and Castilla finished only a single short of the cycle.

"It seems like the fans here really know their baseball," left fielder Brad Wilkerson said. "They were into every pitch. To be part of this night was special. A lot of history was made."

The Nationals honored Washington's baseball history. Before the first pitch, a team of former Washington Senators took the field carrying the gloves of Nationals players.

Mickey Vernon, the former two-time American League batting champion, went to first base. Frank Howard, the Washington Monument of baseball, walked to left field.

A ceremonial passing of the gloves took place as the current Washington baseball players trotted to their positions.

"I'm numb," said Vernon, who will turn 87 next week. "I'm raking it all in."

Tom McCraw is the Nationals' hitting coach. On Sept. 30, 1971, he was the first baseman in the Senators' last game before leaving for Texas.

"I remember how quiet the clubhouse was after the game," McCraw said. "It was like being kicked out of your own house."

The Senators were on their way to beating the New York Yankees, 7-5, in that finale but forfeited in the top of the ninth after souvenir-hungry fans rushed onto the field.

"The umpire said, 'If the fans come on the field, I'm out of here,' " McCraw said. "I said, 'If you go, I'm in your pocket.' He left, so did I."

The Montreal Expos died in October, and the Washington Nationals were born.

Thursday night, they moved into a new home and a new spot -- first place.

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