By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 31, 2008
Draw it up, and there might have been a few minor tweaks. Perhaps the Washington Nationals' first game in their brand new, custom built, $611 million home would have been played under a setting sun, better to show off gleaming Nationals Park than the cool gray of last night. Maybe there would have been no interminable security lines made necessary by President Bush's presence, or the Nationals' overhauled offense might have busted out, providing a packed house with innings of enjoyment.
But when Ryan Zimmerman came to the plate in the ninth, the plot fell into place perfectly. He has taken hold of such at-bats often enough that his teammate, right-hander Jason Bergmann, asked incredulously afterward, "How can you be surprised?"
Indeed, how? Never mind that Zimmerman felt helpless against Atlanta Braves reliever Peter Moylan in two previous at-bats in his career. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Zimmerman drilled Moylan's 1-0 fastball on a low line to left-center. There it settled, just over the wall, the Nationals' first home run in their new digs. There, it gave Washington a 3-2 victory, the first home run becoming the first game-ender delivering the first win and yielding the first curtain call -- all in absurd fashion.
"The right guy up," Manager Manny Acta said. "The franchise player. . . . I couldn't have written the script any better."
Zimmerman's drive capped a delirious day for the franchise that floated in from Montreal three years ago, settling into dilapidated RFK Stadium. There, it toiled in relative obscurity for three seasons, occasionally gaining mention on "SportsCenter" -- usually when Zimmerman hit a game-ending homer, a feat he had performed three previous times. It is Zimmerman's image on the back of the mega-scoreboard in the Nationals' new yard, a four-story photo of the celebration that ensued after he beat the New York Yankees on Father's Day in 2006, his first such blast.
But last night began a new era for baseball in Washington, one shown to the world on national television. Zimmerman has been handed the baton and been charged with going forward. In the most significant pregame ceremony for the Nationals since baseball returned to the District -- back on April 14, 2005 -- the franchise chose two people, Acta and Zimmerman, to accompany President Bush to the field and take part in the ceremonial first pitch.
"I was nervous at first," Zimmerman said.
Just not at the plate. It did, however, take a good deal to get Zimmerman in position to be the hero. There was perhaps no more inappropriate man to take the mound to oppose the Nationals on such a night than Braves right-hander Tim Hudson. The 2007 version of the Washington offense was the least productive in baseball, scoring fewer runs than any team. Against Hudson, the Nationals were Little Leaguers. He faced them four times, won all four decisions, posting an ERA of 0.60.
So when the Nationals scored twice in the first inning -- Nick Johnson driving in Cristian Guzm¿n with the first run at Nationals Park, Austin Kearns following with a two-out RBI single -- there was a feeling of accomplishment in the home dugout, situated along the first base line. In 30 innings against Hudson in 2007, the Nationals managed two runs. In the first inning of 2008, they matched that total.
From there, though, Hudson rolled. He retired the next 19 men he faced. The Braves got one back on Chipper Jones's homer to center off Nationals starter Odalis P¿rez -- the only mark against the veteran in his five clean innings. The Nationals still led, 2-1, but they had no hits since the first. The crowd, sitting in comfort it hadn't known before, had very little about which to cheer.
"Believe me, we knew," Kearns said. "We weren't giving them much to do."
Still, the sellout might have left satisfied had the Washington bullpen held up. Sa¿l Rivera pitched two perfect innings, yielding to Ray King, yielding to Luis Ayala, who would yield to -- who? The ninth is supposed to be the time for closer Chad Cordero. Instead, right-hander Jon Rauch emerged.
"I didn't know," Rauch said, "until after the game started."
Cordero, it turned out, had tendinitis in his right shoulder. Rauch, in his stead, allowed a one-out double to Mark Teixeira. A groundball moved pinch runner Mart¿n Prado to third. Facing Brian McCann, Rauch needed one more out. He unleashed a fastball.
"It was supposed to be a strike," Rauch said, "and I threw it 58 feet." The passed ball charged to catcher Paul Lo Duca allowed Prado to score from second.
In the Nationals' dugout, there was some measure of calm. Veteran first baseman Dmitri Young watched Kearns, due up fourth in the inning, grab his bat.
"Put it down," Young said. "You won't need it."
"He's done it too many times," Bergmann added later.
Yet Moylan has a devastating side-arm delivery that is brutal against right-handed hitters. Zimmerman and Kearns struggled so much against him that they joked about it. "I felt like I had no chance against him in the past," Zimmerman said.
But on this night, he needed just one chance. Moylan came with one fastball that missed, a hair low. Zimmerman wanted that same pitch, and Moylan obliged. It came in at 93 mph. It left at perhaps that same speed.
"The biggest part of those at-bats is keeping your emotions in check," Zimmerman said. But he couldn't as he rounded first, thrusting his right arm into the air. New ballpark, new era -- same result from Ryan Zimmerman, the player given the task of carrying the Nationals forward, this year and beyond.