By Adam Kilgore
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; D01
The initial moments of the Washington Nationals' season delivered on all the mushiest cliches of opening day. The president shook hands with the Nationals in their clubhouse before he threw out the first pitch. Their best player accepted a pair of trophies earned last season, then welcomed the Philadelphia Phillies' new ace by blasting an RBI double off the wall. They held the defending National League champions scoreless for three innings. Hope and change, indeed.
Before the end of the sun-splashed Monday afternoon at Nationals Park, though, Washington had absorbed from the Phillies an 11-1 beating that felt less like the start of something new and more like loss No. 104. From the 41,290 who attended, it seemed only empty blue seats and Phillies fans remained for the last out. The memories from the start had already been obscured.
"That's like asking Mrs. Lincoln how she liked the play, you know?" Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman said.
The home team lost, but a ritual reserved for victories played out anyway. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, as Phillies pitcher David Herndon was inducing a groundout by Willy Taveras, fans stood and inched toward the railings. They were the same people clad in Phillies gear who had booed Nationals players during pregame introductions. They clapped and cheered in anticipation of the game's end.
"Philly fans doing that in our ballpark, I think it's a statement of where we've got to get to," Riggleman said. "We've got to get to the point where we outnumber the opposition. You got to earn that. That's not given to you. You've got to earn that with wins."
The Nats didn't come close Monday. They needed six pitchers as the Phillies drew nine walks, mashed 13 hits, including a game-changing home run by Ryan Howard in the fourth inning and a grand slam by Plácido Polanco in the seventh. The barrage became insurmountable once Roy Halladay, making his Phillies debut, started throwing his BBs, deadly sinkers inside and outside.
"I wouldn't say it's discouraging by any means," Nationals rookie shortstop Ian Desmond said. "There are 161 more to go. Just because we lost one game 11-1, it's just like losing 2-1. It doesn't really matter."
Nationals starter John Lannan could say he out-pitched President Obama, whose ceremonial first pitch sailed high and outside, but not much else. Lannan lasted 3 2/3 innings, two more outs than last year on opening day, and surrendered five runs in a disastrous fourth inning.
Lannan seemed poised to atone for his miserable opening day last year, when he allowed the Florida Marlins six runs in three innings. He allowed two base runners in the first three innings, then walked Chase Utley to begin the third. Up came Howard.
When Howard walked to the plate, he was 4 for 23 with nine strikeouts against Lannan. But Howard is one of the most feared left-handed batters in the National League, and left-handed batters had hit .275 against Lannan in his career. This winter, Lannan vowed to improve his ability to retire lefties by developing his slider.
On the first pitch to Howard, catcher Iván Rodríguez called for the slider. The pitch stayed inside, and "you can't throw it there to him," Lannan said. Howard unleashed his quick, powerful swing and launched the ball into the first rows of the upper deck hovering over the Nationals' bullpen.
The Phillies had a 2-1 lead, and they did not relent. Six of the next eight batters reached base against Lannan, and he exited with the bases loaded. He allowed 10 base runners (three walks, seven hits) and retired 11 batters. The Phillies led 5-1, and with Halladay pitching the deficit felt much larger.
The Nationals had little chance of fighting back against Halladay, acquired in an offseason trade and immediately anointed as the National League's best pitcher. The Nationals grabbed a 1-0 lead in the first inning when Ryan Zimmerman -- who had minutes earlier received his Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards from 2009 -- doubled home Njyer Morgan.
Halladay disallowed any other threats from materializing. Following a double by Rodríguez to lead off the second inning, Halladay faced 16 batters to record the next 16 outs. He struck out nine Nationals in seven innings, allowing six hits and a walk. He even added an RBI on a swinging bunt with a man on third base. If Halladay remains on his once-every-five-days schedule, he'll face the Nationals again April 15. Phillies off days may provide mercy.
Whether or not Halladay pitches, Washington's matchups against the Phillies portend another slow start. The Nationals dropped to 15-40 against the Phillies since the start of the 2007, and they'll play five more times before tax day.
But opening day affords optimism, even after you lose by 10 runs.
Obama had told them before the game they have a bright future, and the Nationals can still hope it's arriving soon.
"We're a confident team," Zimmerman said. "We'll probably lose 11-1 again and we'll probably beat people 11-1. Not the way you want to start, but we've got plenty more."
"I wanted to go out there and have a different story for opening day this year," Lannan said. "But it's the first game of many. I'm not going to let it tell the story for this whole season."