For Openers, a Free Fall

Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman falls but manages to throw out Dontrelle Willis on the Marlins pitcher's sacrifice bunt in the second inning. Zimmerman went 2 for 4 with a triple.
Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman falls but manages to throw out Dontrelle Willis on the Marlins pitcher's sacrifice bunt in the second inning. Zimmerman went 2 for 4 with a triple. (By Joel Richardson For The Washington Post)

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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The sun was out, the stands were nearly full, the only clouds in the sky were puffy and white. But even a pristine setting on the final Opening Day yesterday at RFK Stadium couldn't hide the product on the field. The Washington Nationals are the consensus pick to finish last in their division and, in fact, to be the worst team in baseball. For the first nine innings of the season, they might have matched that.

The crux of the matter showed up on the scoreboard, a 9-2 loss to the Florida Marlins that marred the debut of new manager Manny Acta, whose parents traveled from his native Dominican Republic to take in the event. But even with 161 games to go, the details of this debacle best not be foretelling, or it will indeed be a terribly long summer at RFK.

"It didn't start the way we wanted," Acta said.

John Patterson, long ago determined to be the most established starting pitcher, couldn't escape the fourth inning and gave up six runs. At least he departed in good health. Nook Logan, the golden-gloved, leaden-batted center fielder, made a leaping catch while slamming into the wall, but hyperextended his left foot. Shortstop Cristian Guzman couldn't run out a groundball because of a strained left hamstring. Each left the game; each will be reevaluated today but early indications are that each could be out a week.

But there was more. The cobbled-together pitching staff issued eight walks and allowed the left side of the Marlins' infield -- shortstop Hanley Ramirez and third baseman Miguel Cabrera -- to reach base nine times in 12 plate appearances, scoring five runs and driving in five more. The two Marlins' home runs -- one by Cabrera, the other by second baseman Dan Uggla -- landed in the hands of fans seated safely in RFK's miles-away upper deck, Cabrera's in Section 446, Uggla's even deeper in Section 451, souvenirs for some in the crowd of 40,389.

"Not much went right today," Patterson said. "Had a couple injuries. I didn't pitch well. There wasn't a lot of positives that came out of today's game."

Patterson expected more. He hadn't pitched in a major league game since last July 9, when his season ended with a one-inning outing because of a nerve problem in his elbow. He came into this year knowing he would start on Opening Day, knowing he would be expected to make 30 starts and throw 200 innings, knowing he had to dictate to the rest of a young rotation how things should be done.

But he couldn't execute any of that. He needed 25 pitches to get through the first inning and allowed a two-out, two-run double to Cabrera to put the Marlins up 3-0 in the second. He didn't look right, with his curveball spinning out of the strike zone and his fastball topping out at 90 mph. He didn't feel right, either.

"I can normally tell the last five, 10 feet when I throw a ball, you'll see the ball jump," Patterson said. "It'll pop. And it just wasn't really doing that today. I got to find some drive somewhere."

Patterson said when his fastball is whipping in at 93 mph, it sets up both of his breaking pitches, the curveball and slider, to be much harder. On a good day, his curveball hits 77 or 78 mph. But on a day like yesterday, it floated in at 72 or 73 -- the difference between being eminently hittable and nasty.

"I need that whip," he said. "I was talking to some other guys, and that was the same thing they were saying. They just didn't see that little boom at the end of my pitches like I've always had. It's almost like my arm was carrying the ball today."

In the fourth, Cabrera carried him right out of the game. With the Marlins up 4-0, two down and Ramirez on first, Patterson worked Cabrera to a 2-2 count, getting him to flail at one curveball. But he went back to the fastball, one that started in and ran back over the plate. It only reached 88 mph. Hitting that kind of pitch is something akin to breathing for Cabrera, and he deposited it into the upper deck, the last pitch Patterson threw.

That part -- Cabrera going 3 for 4 with four RBI, Ramirez going 4 for 6 with a pair of doubles -- Acta can deal with it. But during his darkest moments in the middle of the night, the first-year manager worries about how his pitchers will deal with weaker hitters. Miguel Olivo and Alejandro De Aza, the seventh and eighth hitters in the Marlins' order, got on base five times between them.

"If you can't get the seventh and eighth guy in the lineup, and you keep rolling [over] the lineup," Acta said, "what are you going to do when you face Cabrera with the bases loaded?"

Somewhere in there is the broader question about this entire season. Nationals management, led by team president Stan Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden, have been clear that the team kept its payroll at a paltry $36 million this season because they believe they are repairing the minor league system. That, they say, will allow them to spend more in the future and will help them build an annual contender.

But that leaves the 2007 team -- where?

"It's going to be kind of a roller-coaster for us this year," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

If that's so, yesterday was the first hands-in-the-air, scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs free fall.

"It's not how you want to start the season," Patterson said. "With so much doubt in the air, it's easy to say, 'Oh, I told you so.' And we can't think like that."


More in the Nationals Section

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Take an interactive tour of the district's newest stadium, Nationals Park.

Baseball Insider

Baseball Insider

Dave Sheinin reports the latest MLB news and examines the game's nuances.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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