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Church Makes His Delayed Debut Successful

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page E12

MIAMI, April 9 -- Saturday night was almost worth the wait for Washington Nationals outfielder Ryan Church -- almost. A groin strain a day before Opening Day sent Church from the starting lineup to the dugout last week, forcing him to miss the team's first four games. The pain, Church said, was excruciating.

He wasn't talking about the injury.

A groin strain kept Ryan Church, shown during training camp, from starting on Opening Day. He hit his second career home run last night in the Nationals' 3-2 win. (John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)

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On the bench, Church agonized. He bit his nails, hoping to speed the innings by. Finally, Saturday night, with his upper right thigh tightly wrapped, Church got the start he felt his injury had deprived him last week.

In the Nationals' 3-2, 10-inning victory over the Florida Marlins at Dolphins Stadium, Church attacked the game as if he had been launched from the dugout. He provided the Nationals their first run, hitting an inside fastball from Marlins starter Brian Moehler over the left field wall in his second at-bat for his second career home run. He went 2 for 5, with one single. He hit another ball that was caught on the warning track in center field.

"Aw, shoot," Church said, "it's a fun yard. It's fun to hit here. I remember playing video games as a kid . . ."

Church then rambled on about how he dreamed of playing here as a child until he was interrupted by his incredulous circle of listeners. This antiseptic park? This 74,000-seat football stadium that looks largely empty even with sizeable crowds like Saturday night's (30,739)?

"It's not Wrigley Field," he said sheepishly. "But it's a perfect playing surface, and it's always a nice crowd like tonight."

He might also have added this important fact: He hit his only other major league home run here last summer, about three weeks after making his debut with the Montreal Expos. (That ball now sits in a protective glass case in a memorabilia room he and his fiancee keep.)

And even a crowd on the road sounds nice, apparently, when you are 26, batting .333, and beginning what you hope will be your first full major league season (Church played 30 games last summer as a late-season call-up from Class AAA Edmonton).

"It's good to go out there and start, get some good at-bats and we'll go from there," said Church, who went 0 for 1 in his first pinch-hit appearance Wednesday at Philadelphia.

Church, who on Saturday started in left field, likely will get the same assignment for the next couple of games, Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said, even though he will eventually be moved to center -- where he had been penciled in for Opening Day. Robinson wanted to reduce the territory Church had to cover to ensure he didn't reinjure the groin.

"That was fine with me," Church said. "As long as I'm in the starting lineup."

The idea that he is expected to start for this team is still sinking in for Church, who until days before the season expected to be among the last players sent out to Triple-A. But when the Nationals demoted Endy Chavez, disappointed at his failure to produce in center field, Church's season veered in a much better direction -- until last Sunday, when he felt a pull in his right groin in the 47-degree temperatures that greeted the Nationals at their first game, an exhibition, at RFK Stadium.

"It was a little setback," he said. "I knew they were going to throw me out there."

Church even got a souvenir from Saturday's game. The stadium's visiting team equipment manager Mike Wallace sent security on a hunt for Church's home run ball, eventually negotiating a trade with the fan who pocketed it. For an autographed Ryan Church ball, the fan agreed to turn the home-run ball over to Wallace, who handed it off to Church, who was ecstatic.

"It's something to cherish," he said, "to hold onto."

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