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Thomas Boswell

A Dose of Reality Brings Nats to Earth

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page D01

PHILADELPHIA -- Baseball games build to a few moments of intensity, or sometimes only one at-bat, on which the whole contest turns. Hours of incident simply set the stage for a handful of truly crucial confrontations. Those junctures of crisis and excitement, when the whole ballpark stands or every player on both benches fixes his eyes on every pitch, are at the heart of what Washington fans have missed since 1971. So, fittingly, Opening Day for the new Nationals resolved itself to one quintessential showdown.

"Good baseball fans watch for those moments. We call it that 'one opportunity' that is going to be the difference in the game," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "I'd say about 70 percent of all games have those big moments."

"But this game," Robinson said, "just had one."

This time, the man for the moment was Terrmel Sledge. On Monday, he had a chance to be a big man in Washington, as well as a trivia answer for a generation. In a day, with one swing, the young left fielder might have forced a million new Nationals fans to learn that his first name is spelled with no "h," two "r's" and one "m."

"Oh, exactly," said Sledge, shaking his head at the idea of so many people learning his idiosyncratic name at once.

As Sledge came to bat in the seventh inning with the bases loaded and the Nats trailing 7-4, he had already put his name in the team record book twice. In the second inning, he drove in the first run of the new Nats era. Then, just an inning later, Sledge hit the first major league home run by a Washington hitter in 12,139 days when he lined a two-run blast into the right field bleachers. When a fan threw the ball back on the field, the Hall of Fame called dibs for Cooperstown.

The stage was set. Sledge already had three RBI and "it pops through your mind: 'Grand slam.' I'd be lying if I said it didn't." Patiently, Sledge worked the count to 3-0. A strong wind blew to right field. "My home run got up in that jet stream," Sledge said. "The pitcher feels that wind, too. He knows which way it's blowing."

Suddenly, Sledge had three chances to hammer a decent fly ball to right that might get a wind-blown ride for an 8-7 Washington lead to complete a comeback from a 7-1 deficit. What a start to a new era. Could the team's fourth outfielder, who only got a last-minute start because rookie Ryan Church had a minor injury, be the answer to an endlessly asked question: Who drove in seven runs on Opening Day to give Washington a victory after the longest offseason in baseball history?

Forget the fantasy.

Washington is back in the major leagues, but not in B movies with hokey endings. The fun this season will be that, in more than a hundred games that have such crisis turning points, the fantastic and the ridiculous will be blended with utter unpredictability. Sledge could have homered again. He's hit well all spring. Robinson considers him a student of the game with a quick bat and a good future. And Sledge sure had his hacks. After obediently taking a strike from 6-foot-6 Ryan Madson, he fouled back a fastball on a going-for-the-downs swing before, finally, smacking a grounder to the Phillies second baseman.

It was a "room-service double play" in 1971. And it still is. End of rally and, essentially, end of game, which Philadelphia ultimately won, 8-4, despite 13 Nats hits, at least one by every Nats starter, including losing pitcher Livan Hernandez.

If you didn't like this day's outcome, then over the next six months there will be 161 more games with an almost infinite variety of alternative endings. And more than 100 of them will have just a few fulcrum encounters like Sledge and Madson. Just a Sledge single would have cut the lead to 7-6, and probably put men at the corners with one out -- tantamount to a tie game.

"On 3-1, I got a good pitch to hit and I just missed it. I was a little too amped up. The adrenaline kicks in," Sledge said. "And the 3-2 pitch was the best pitch to hit that I saw all day, including the home run. I was thinking 'pull' a little too much. I was a little too geeked. I should've taken it back up the middle. I was kicking myself in the butt for a couple innings."

Not necessary. Just learn. That why they play 162 games -- so that, if you have enough good at-bats, make enough good decisions, as Sledge almost did, the percentages will eventually, over the long season, prove your mettle.

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