Nationals debut with exciting loss

Posted: Tuesday, April 05, 2005


  Washington Nationals' third baseman Vinny Castilla bobbles a ball hit by Philadelphia Phillies' Pat Burrell in the second inning Monday, April 4, 2005, in Philadelphia. Burrell was safe at first on the play. AP Photo/George Widman

Washington Nationals' third baseman Vinny Castilla bobbles a ball hit by Philadelphia Phillies' Pat Burrell in the second inning Monday, April 4, 2005, in Philadelphia. Burrell was safe at first on the play.

AP Photo/George Widman

PHILADELPHIA — If any of the Washington Nationals looked up while walking toward the visitors' dugout for their regular-season debut, they might have noticed the framed uniforms of NL teams lining the walls.

Up where a Nationals jersey should have been, there was a gray uniform with ''Montreal'' in neat, red script. It's been a long journey from Canada to the U.S. capital, and now that Washington has a major league team for the first time since the Senators left in 1971, it might take a while for everyone to get used to the idea.

With ''Washington'' written in blue block letters across their chests, the Nationals played their first official post-Montreal game Monday, opening the season and their new era with an 8-4 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.

''We're making history here. As an Expo, at Shea Stadium at the end of the year, we were the last players to wear that uniform. And now we're the first to wear this uniform,'' left fielder Terrmel Sledge said.

''They haven't had baseball in D.C. in 35 years, so it's a whole new atmosphere.''

Sledge hit the first home run in Nationals history, a two-run shot off starter Jon Lieber in the sixth inning.

Other Nationals' firsts included Brad Wilkerson's single leading off the game — his uniform is headed to the Hall of Fame — and Sledge's RBI groundout that drove in Nick Johnson with their first run with one out in the second.

That 1-0 lead prompted a group of fans in the upper deck to chant, ''Let's go, Nats! Let's go, Nats!''

''I don't know if we heard that on the road the three previous years,'' Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. ''It was good to hear that, but you don't get caught up in it.''

There were plenty of Nationals jerseys and hats dotting the full house of 44,080; it's only about 130 miles from RFK Stadium to Citizens Bank Park.

''The past couple of days, I've been thinking about the sellout crowd — what is it, about 40,000 people? — watching us playing baseball,'' Sledge said. ''I'm geeked up. It's a dream.''

The Expos lived a nomadic and unstable existence the past three years.

First, baseball wanted to fold them. Then came two seasons with 22 ''home'' games in Puerto Rico. And then came the protracted process of getting the District of Columbia Council to finalize the deal for the Expos' move to Washington.

''It feels good just to be back on the field ... to get it out of the way. I'm glad it's over, and now we can relax and go out and play baseball,'' Wilkerson said. ''My first big league experience was in Montreal. I have a lot of friends in Montreal. But, to be honest, it's good to move on.''

Last year's 67-95 record made it easier to embrace a new home. To a man, players spoke this spring about a fresh start.

''The energy about this team ... I hope it carries through the season. It's exciting knowing that everything is back to normal — like every other ballclub, playing all your games in one place,'' Robinson said.

''Mentally, it's a different feeling here, and that can really help a ballclub, help players.''

General manager Jim Bowden came aboard in November and brought in Jose Guillen, Vinny Castilla, Cristian Guzman and Esteban Loaiza. But Bowden is limited by a $50 million budget set by major league baseball; the Nationals are owned by the other 29 teams and a new owner isn't expected to be in place before midseason.

''Today's the culmination of a lot of hard work by a lot of people,'' team president Tony Tavares said. ''Everybody's picking us last and I kind of like that, because we'll show people we're better than that.''

Five of nine starters were the same Monday as opening day in 2004, and Robinson spent much of spring training fretting about his offense. He sent Wilkerson out in the leadoff spot, and put Johnson fifth.

Getting hits was not a problem in Game 1 for the Nationals: Every player in the starting nine got at least one, including pitcher Livan Hernandez. But the 2004 Expos' lone All-Star gave up seven earned runs in his 4 2-3 innings and took the loss.

''I'm going to be ready for next time,'' Hernandez said. ''I'm not the kind of guy to put my head down.''

So the first win in Nationals history will come another day. Still, there was another ''W'' that the team and its fans were pleased to see: that curly white letter stitched on their blue road ballcaps, reminiscent of the letter the old Senators wore.

All those team firsts go into the books, and memorabilia will head to Cooperstown, but Robinson has other concerns.

''You just kind of forget about that until the end,'' he said. ''Then it's, 'Well, we lost our first one.'''

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