Nationals Roughed Up by Marlins in Season-Opening 12-6 Loss

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

MIAMI, April 6 -- This offseason, the Washington Nationals made just one trade, and at the time, it never felt wrong. The Nationals acquired an established left-handed starter (Scott Olsen) and a power hitter (Josh Willingham); they parted only with a bit player named Emilio Bonifacio, a dazzling base runner who lacked the bat to get on base. On the day they traded Bonifacio, then, the Nationals took the first clear step toward improvement.

All the assumptions about the progress of Washington's offseason held up just fine, of course, until Opening Day provided a twist. In their 12-6 loss to the Florida Marlins on Monday, the Nationals endured an unlikely sort of punishment -- certainly cruel, possibly unusual -- delivered by the one player who used to be their own. Though the Nationals did plenty wrong themselves, Bonifacio symbolized the day's anti-storybook quality. With three stolen bases, four hits, seven total bases and an inside-the-park home run, Bonifacio had the sort of game he's never seen before. With two errors, several more fielding miscues and a battered array of pitching, Washington played the sort of game that it doesn't hope to soon replicate.

After the loss, Washington's veterans spoke in measured tones about Opening Day outcomes. They tell no more about what's to come than a coin toss. But here, in front of 34,323 at Dolphin Stadium, the Nationals at least sketched a rough picture of what they have, and whether it's much improved from the 2008 team that lost 102 games.

The Nationals showed a muscular lineup, helped especially by Adam Dunn, who knocked in four runs and scored two. His three-run stand-and-watch homer in the sixth nearly vaulted Washington back into the game. His fourth-inning double, too, might have been a home run were it not for the wind.

But the Nationals also revealed a few of their shortcomings -- especially in the outfield and on the mound. Each of the team's first three relievers, trying to eat innings after starter John Lannan (three innings, six runs) fizzled, advanced Florida's lead. Three Marlins, not counting Bonifacio, blasted home runs, including a Hanley Ramírez grand slam that provided Florida's final four runs.

And Washington didn't help itself in the field. In the first, a line drive sailed over Dunn's head in left and accounted for at least a run. Later, Ronnie Belliard muffed a grounder at second. Even third baseman Ryan Zimmerman threw low on a routine play to first, indicative of a sloppy day.

"You'll see a different team tomorrow," Dunn said.

If Washington has a team suited for heavyweight baseball -- lots of runs, unstable pitching, unpredictable outcomes -- Bonifacio represents the polar opposite. He is perhaps the fastest player in baseball. He's a tremendous fielder. His power is nonexistent. Last year, in 49 games with Washington, he had a .296 on-base percentage and a .337 slugging percentage. Never did he steal more than one base in a game. Never did he get more than two hits.

"Like I said, it's the first game of 162," Zimmerman said. "I bet you he doesn't get four or five hits every game. But yeah, he's pretty fast."

In each of his first two at-bats, Bonifacio slapped singles above second base. Both times, he stole (second base once, third base another time). Both times, he scored. By the time he came to bat for the third time, this game had already taken on the proportions of a blowout. It was the fourth inning. Lannan was already gone, replaced by long reliever Julian Tavarez. Washington trailed 6-2.

With the count full and one runner on, Bonifacio lofted a fly ball to center, targeted for a spot with no middle ground. If Lastings Milledge tracked it down -- he'd been playing shallow -- the center fielder had a chase-and-dive highlight. If he missed, the highlight belonged to Bonifacio.

"The ball was hit to deep center," Manager Manny Acta said. "The wind was blowing back there. He's playing shallow. And [Bonifacio] can fly."

When the ball dropped, landing before the warning track, Milledge knew Bonifacio had a triple -- at least. He hurried a relay throw to Belliard. Bonifacio, not even sprinting for the first 90 feet, accelerated toward second, then accelerated even more. By the time he got to third, he was more soaring than sprinting.

Belliard threw home to catcher Jesús Flores.

The throw got there a half-beat too late.

Bonifacio slid, rose to his feet, and pumped his fist.

A minute later, he received a curtain call.

"I mean, I thought he was fast, but I didn't know he was that fast to get an inside-the-park," Milledge said. "I thought I got the ball in pretty quick, and Ronnie made a good throw. I don't know. I was just real kind of amazed by his speed."

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