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At Long Last, Nats Lose

On Opening Day, Washington's First Baseball Team in 34 Years Slips on the Road: Phillies 8, Nationals 4

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page D01

PHILADELPHIA, April 4 -- At some point, it changed. History and pomp faded to the beginning of a season's grind. Yes, there was an American flag that covered the entire outfield. Yes, a choir majestically belted out the national anthem. Indeed, there were fans in the stands -- many, in fact -- wearing hats with a script "W" across the front, staring in some combination of disbelief and joy at players with "Washington" scrawled across their chests.

For the first time in 34 years, baseball fans in the nation's capital will be able to pick up the sports section Tuesday, flip back a few pages, look in the standings and find the word "Washington." Those developments -- unthinkable 20 and 10 and even five years ago -- brought no small measure of joy to the Nationals, the team entrusted with bringing baseball back after all these years.

The Washington Nationals, left, in their gray and blue road uniforms, meet their hosts, the Philadelphia Phillies, at home plate for the singing of the national anthem. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

"It gets you geeked up," outfielder Terrmel Sledge said.

But the reality of the day for the Nationals, after the first three hours and 19 minutes of baseball in this historic 2005 season, is that the visiting clubhouse Monday evening at Citizens Bank Park was enveloped in the kind of unmistakable, quiet murmuring that signals a loss.

The particulars of the first game in Washington Nationals history read like this: Philadelphia right-hander Jon Lieber kept the Nationals off-balance early; slight outfielder Kenny Lofton ripped a three-run home run in the fifth for a six-run lead; the Nationals' best comeback opportunity turned into a double-play ball off Sledge's bat; and the Phillies beat the Nationals, 8-4, in front of 44,080 mostly satisfied fans.

Suddenly, so many things were afterthoughts. The long journey from Montreal, where this franchise existed as the Expos for 36 seasons. The vagabond days of the past few years, when it played some of its home games in Puerto Rico, turning homestands into road trips. The fact that Major League Baseball still owns the franchise, keeping close watch on its budget and hindering its ability to truly compete.

"It was exciting," center fielder Brad Wilkerson said. "But I didn't really feel any different than I do every Opening Day."

Some things had changed, to be sure. At one point, a group of Nationals fans started a small but audible "Let's Go Nats!" chant behind the third base dugout. But players and coaches made clear that what mattered most was the loss.

"We don't get into that stuff," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "This is not high school or college. We hear them. It's good to hear that. I don't know if we heard that on the road the previous three years. But we don't get caught up in that. You got to keep focused."

This team, in particular, must keep focused, because its margin for error is so small. Take starting pitcher Livan Hernandez. Last year, he reached the sixth inning in 33 of 35 starts. Monday, he struggled, battling what he said was a wet mound in the second, when he allowed two runs, and eventually getting knocked out in the fifth.

The key blow came with two outs and runners on first and second, when Lofton -- who hit just three homers last year with the New York Yankees -- pulled Hernandez's first pitch to right field, curling it inside the foul pole for a 7-1 Phillies lead.

"I felt the same as spring training," Hernandez said. "I threw one bad pitch, and guy hits a home run -- and that's the game."

At that point, Hernandez would seem to be right. Lieber, the veteran known for pinpoint control, worked the ball in and out through the first five innings, going to three balls on just one batter.

But with two outs in the sixth, Sledge came up with a man on and stroked the first pitch -- an inside fastball -- into the right-field seats. That cut the lead to 7-3. And an inning later, it was Sledge again. Vinny Castilla had already drawn a bases-loaded walk off reliever Ryan Madson to make it 7-4.

The 28-year-old Sledge was a rookie last year, but he led the Expos by hitting .337 with runners in scoring position. General Manager Jim Bowden said this spring that when he looked Sledge in the eye, he got the feeling he wanted this kid up in a tough situation, with key runs on base.

Well, here it was, the first such situation in Nationals' history, the chance to be Washington's first baseball hero in a generation. Madson threw three straight balls before Sledge took a strike, then fouled off the 3-1 pitch. With the count full and only one out, Sledge saw a pitch he liked, and swung. But he bounced it to second baseman Placido Polanco, who calmly started the double play that ended the Nationals' chances.

"I was kicking myself in the butt for a couple innings," Sledge said, "because it was probably the best pitch I'd seen all day."

In essence, that was it. The Nationals ended up with 13 hits, but just two -- Sledge's home run and a double from catcher Brian Schneider -- went for extra bases. In four at-bats with runners in scoring position, they failed to get a single hit.

"It just goes to show you," Robinson said. "It's when you get the hits, not how many you get."

When Phillies closer Billy Wagner finished off a 1-2-3 ninth, the Nationals headed to the clubhouse. Tuesday is an off day. In a season of firsts, they must wait for the most important first -- a win -- for at least two days.

"There wasn't no pageantry for the D.C. Nationals today," reliever Joey Eischen said. "We came here to kick some butt -- and we didn't. But we'll be out Wednesday, and we're going to bring it."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company