At RFK, Baseball 101

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, April 3, 2007

There was an emergency meeting in the commissioner's office after descriptions of yesterday's Opening Day debacle at RFK reached the appropriate authorities. The vote was close. Mercy prevailed. They're going to let the Nationals play again today.

Welcome to the big leagues, Manny Acta.

The Nats' new manager says he has waited his whole life for his first Opening Day as a skipper. Be careful what you wish for. Any team can lose, but his Nationals lost ominously and ugly, 9-2, to the Marlins. Everything imaginable did not go wrong. It was worse than that. Things you never imagined went wrong, too. Mama said there'd be days like this, but on Opening Day?

Staff ace John Patterson got knocked out in the fourth inning after giving up an upper-deck home run to Miguel Cabrera, who also doubled over the center field wall off him for four RBI. "There's no carry-over to the next game," Patterson said. "It's not how you want to start the season. With so much doubt in the air, it's easy [for critics] to say, 'I told you so.' "

Having your only established starting pitcher get rocked is bad enough. But on this Opening Day, that was nothing. Center fielder Nook Logan crashed the wall at the 410-sign making a nice catch on another Patterson mistake and left the game with an injured left foot. That forced Ryan Church to center, where he's out of position, and sent rookie Chris Snelling to left where he immediately misjudged a routine line drive into a triple off his glove. No, that's not good either. But it gets worse.

Shortstop Cristian Guzman, who hit .413 in spring training, strained his right hamstring running out a grounder and left the game. He may be out awhile. The Nats could need a new shortstop. Acta said Felipe Lopez might move back to shortstop so veteran Ronnie Belliard could play second. But Lopez indicated he wasn't planning any relocation. They'll probably work it out. But, oh, boy, what a way to say "Hello" to a crowd of 40,389 on a 76-degree slice of paradise.

"It's just weird that we went the whole spring training, and were pretty much healthy coming out of Florida," Acta said, "and then two guys go down."

The brightest memory of the day was a 10-foot Teddy Roosevelt mascot soaring down a cable from the top of the right field roof to win the Nats' daily Presidents' Race. Teddy -- shut out in 2006 -- watched the top of the fourth from the top of RFK as Patterson got bombed, Logan got hurt then limped slowly off the field and one Nats disaster followed another.

"Hopefully, Teddy wasn't watching the game too close up there. He might've been worried," catcher Brian Schneider said. Or, if he were a Nats fan, he might have been tempted to jump.

Amid all this, Ryan Zimmerman continued to play in his own tiny, uncontaminated universe. He tripled, singled, was robbed of another hit and, finally, with his team seven runs behind, refused to give up on a wind-blown foul pop that appeared headed several rows into the stands until he suddenly snagged it backhanded out of the photographers' bay.

"You want to win and show the crowd how it's going to be all year or make them think that's how it's going to be," Zimmerman said. "But we can still win the series."

That kind of determination is going to be essential because this game was just a foretaste of pratfalls that are sure to come even if the Nationals play up to their ability. If this game underlined anything it is that Washington has seldom been home to a professional team that needed support (and forgiveness) more than this $36 million collection. Blame those who saved payroll for the future, if you want. But show some compassion for a team that has 16 players who spent the majority of last season in the minors, on the disabled list or out of the game. And, on this Opening Day, it definitely showed.

The day's most telling moment came in the fifth inning, Nats trailing 6-1, when Acta allowed rookie reliever Levale Speigner, who already had gotten four outs in his big league debut, to bat for himself to lead off the inning. In theory, a five-run mid-game deficit is surmountable by any team, right? Yet Acta waved a white flag, or at least a small handkerchief, to save his bullpen from overuse. Frank Robinson, incinerator of bullpens, wouldn't have done it.

"We really needed some innings. We can't get hammered in the bullpen from Opening Day," said Acta of a defensible but odd decision. Speigner, who had batted only once since high school in '99, swung so late on a Dontrelle Willis fastball that he fouled it almost straight backward into the crowd. "I thought I might've killed somebody," Speigner said.

Fans in the outfield upper deck may be the ones in most danger. Lefty Micah Bowie threw an even longer gopher ball to Dan Uggla than Patterson did to Cabrera. Uggla's blast, into Section 451, was one of the longest since baseball returned to RFK. But the season is young, very young. So are most Nats pitchers.

So, Manny, will you be back for Game 2? "It's only one game," snorted the manager.

Indeed, that's all. But it gave hints of things to come. Dmitri Young had two doubles and may hit at first base until Nick Johnson's broken leg is healed. But you haven't lived until you see Young scream, "YOURS," on a high popup on a sunny day.

Every aspect of the sport at the big league level will be an education all season. Rookie Shawn Hill was the team's most impressive pitcher in spring training and will start Game 2. But coach Randy St. Claire had to show him how to chart Patterson's start. Type of pitch goes here, location of pitch goes there and you don't just put down "6-3" for a grounder to short. You practically have to describe every hop. Hill was happy to learn the big league nuances. But he's also the team's No. 2 starter. "It was a beautiful day, a beautiful crowd," Acta said. "The game ended up where I didn't want it to be. I lost today."

All spring, the Nats have said that they could compete, that they could be respectable, that they could help build a foundation for the future in their last season in RFK, if -- and they always used the same words -- "if we can stay healthy."

Now, after one game, two starters may be out of the lineup. And there's not one man in the entire organization truly equipped to be a big league center fielder or shortstop. Well, except the second baseman.

There's no quick solution and six months left. Be careful out there. And if you're Teddy Roosevelt, stay off the roof.

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