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Nationals Greet Their Season

Team's First Game Goes Without Hitch: Nationals 5, Mets 3

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2005; Page D01

VIERA, Fla., March 2 -- One player dropped a ball he should have caught, even though it hit him in the glove. Another completely misplayed a line drive, which was hit right at him. Still another got picked off on the team's first attempted steal. They looked, overall, very much like they were playing the first game of the spring, which, of course, they were.

But the Washington Nationals played baseball Wednesday. Real, live baseball. Their 5-3 victory over the New York Mets under a cloudless sky at Space Coast Stadium likely won't be remembered as a milestone, not like Opening Day, still a month and two days away, or the first regular season trip to RFK Stadium, their new home, that follows.

The Nationals' Jose Guillen hits a two-run home run in the team's first spring training game as Washington's franchise. "Good things are going to happen," Guillen said. "I promise." (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

Sure, there were unusual jitters and unique feelings that came with pulling on bright white uniforms with the word "Nationals" scrawled across the front. But there were also developments Wednesday that mattered more to the overall success of this franchise during its first season in a new city. For the Nationals players who lined the top step of the dugout and the executives who sat in the stands, none were more important than the successful debuts of the pitcher with the suspect right shoulder or the right fielder with the suspect reputation.

Both came through without problems. Tony Armas Jr., the right-hander still working his way back from surgery some 22 months ago, threw two innings of no-hit, one-walk ball in which he was a bit erratic early in the count, but also showed the wicked slider that makes him so promising.

"He was throwing free out there," Manager Frank Robinson said. "He wasn't laboring to throw the ball."

And Jose Guillen, the talented outfielder who was shunned after an outburst last year with the Anaheim Angels -- and subsequently traded -- ripped a fastball over the right-center field fence for a two-run homer in the bottom of the fourth, a show of power this team, which played last year as the Montreal Expos, simply didn't have in 2004.

"Why did we get him, huh?" catcher Brian Schneider asked mockingly.

Thus appeared two pieces the franchise lacked last year, solid starting pitching and power from the middle of the lineup. It means little in March, of course. The Nationals' projected regulars started the game and played just four or five innings each, more than they might have had this not been the first game in Washington uniforms or the game not been on national television. But regardless of the circumstances, Armas and Guillen gave them what they wanted.

"I felt great today," Armas said. "A little anxious to be out there, but great."

In 2003, Armas got off to a start that might have led to a breakthrough season when he suffered the shoulder injury that eventually led to surgery. He made only 16 starts in 2004, and never felt quite right. So for him, the fact that he threw 28 pitches without pain was the most important aspect of Wednesday's outing. The fact that he showed the biting slider while striking out second baseman Kaz Matsui and center fielder Carlos Beltran -- the Mets' stud free agent acquisition -- in the top of the first was merely a bonus. He allowed a leadoff walk in the second and admitted to overthrowing a bit, but was pleased.

"Every time I go out there, I want to be pain-free and be where I need to be," Armas said. "That's what I'm looking for. As long as I have no pain or nothing, I'm confident [in what] I can do."

Guillen has never lacked confidence, even as he has shuffled through stints with six other major league teams. He showed, though, that his confidence is based in his exceptional ability. Second baseman Jose Vidro, who played four innings on his surgically repaired right knee, singled with one out in the fourth. Guillen's homer followed off a fastball from Mets right-hander Aaron Heilman, and it cleared a 16-foot fence -- slightly to the opposite field.

"I'm a strong man," Guillen said. "Two-hundred thirty pounds. What do you expect from a 230-pound man? I'm 5-11. A lot of people look at me as a short guy, not much power. But it's a blessing from God to have that type of power."

The rest of the day, baseball-wise, went mostly as planned, other than the inevitable miscues. Lefty Mike Hinckley, making his debut with the major league club, botched a potential double-play ball in the fourth. Center fielder Endy Chavez ran deep into left-center to track down a fly ball, only to drop it. Left fielder Jeffrey Hammonds completely misplayed a line drive into a double, and Guillen, who was hit by a pitch in the second, was picked off trying to steal.

"A little sloppy out there," Robinson said. "But other than that . . ."

Other than that, his baseball players appeared in a game wearing hats adorned with a script "W", uniforms with a "DC" patch on the sleeve. Robinson was pleased with Armas, pleased with Guillen, pleased that relievers Luis Ayala and Chad Cordero protected a lead in the eighth and ninth innings, with Cordero even striking out the side to end it.

So by the time the crowd of 7,558 -- larger than some last year in Montreal -- filed out, there were precious few things that didn't feel right about the Nationals' debut.

"I promise you guys good things are going to happen," Guillen said. "I promise."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company