Opening Day is less than stellar for Nats

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; D07

Can Donovan McNabb switch uniforms and pitch in the summers?

The way the ex-Eagles quarterback feels about Philadelphia these days, maybe somebody with the Nationals can sneak into his Redskins news conference Tuesday and beg him to start against the Phillies on Wednesday in the Nats' second game of the season.

He can't do worse.

The way John Lannan, Miguel Batista and Jason Bergmann got shelled by the National League champs in a gruesome 11-1 opening day eyesore on Monday afternoon, throwing spirals to the plate might get better results.

Conventional deliveries, the kind reminiscent of last year's worst-in-class Nats staff, produced every kind of Phillie fireworks, from a grand slam homer by tiny Plácido Polanco to an upper-deck blast by big Ryan Howard.

All were received with cheers from a sellout crowd of 41,290 that Commissioner Bud Selig guessed was one-third visiting fans.

Last year, President Stan Kasten invited Phils fans to "come on down" for the opener to help fill the stands. Come on, Stan, now that they know D.C. is south of Philadelphia, you never know when they'll show up. Even Phillies fans can't get lost on I-95.

"When I was standing with the president before the game, I heard all this cheering," Selig said. "I said to Ted Lerner, 'What are they chanting?' And he didn't know. Fortunately, he didn't know because they were chanting, 'Let's go Phillies!' "

"That was impressive," said the Phils' Jayson Werth. "It felt like all of right field was only Phillies fans. This has kind of started to be our home away from home a little bit."

Does anybody have the clubhouse phone number in Harrisburg? There's a rookie up there who isn't so hospitable.

The Nats' last best chance may have come when President Obama threw out the ceremonial first pitch -- high and over the left-handed batter's box. You can't hit what you can't reach. Nats pitchers didn't follow the hint, the worse for them.

From the first strike thrown by Lannan, which Jimmy Rollins lashed into left for a hit, the Phils acted like every Nats pitch was their personal request.

Or, perhaps, the Nats, despite having added five new pitchers this year, have the only staff that brings the equivalent of "coach-pitch" to the big leagues.

"This is the first of many," said Lannan, who gave up six runs last opening day in Miami but went on to a fine season. "I'm not going to let it tell the whole story for this season."

That calmly defiant mood was reflected throughout a Nats clubhouse that despises, but has learned to largely ignore the stream of easy jokes and sarcasm that surrounds their status as the back-to-back worst team in baseball.

"We're a confident team. We'll lose again 11-1 this season and we'll beat some people 11-1," Ryan Zimmerman said levelly after driving in the only Washington run with a line-drive double high off the right field scoreboard for a brief, almost ironic 1-0 lead against dominant Roy Halladay, the Phils' new free agent jewel.

"It would be nice to fill the park with our own fans," said a Nats regular. "But if you win, it changes. We just need to win."

That can take a long time. But, as the Orioles know after years of being subsidized by Red Sox and Yankees fans, the visitors can help pay the rent. Oh, that's right, the Nats don't pay rent.

For Saturday night's exhibition, the Nats even went so far as to pay the Red Sox to come to Washington -- both to give their own fans a better attraction but, also, to draw 37,312 paying, eating, parking customers to South Capital Street.

Ian Desmond saw the same phenomenon growing up in Tampa Bay. "I watched the [then] Devil Rays for years when the visiting team had the fans," said the rookie, who had a walk and an error on a short-hop in his first start as the regular shortstop. "Now look at them. They have their own crowds." After 10 awful years, followed by a World Series visit, the Rays now have a deafening unfriendly dome.

Still, it's a shock when rude interlopers boo a home team during its own opening day introductions. Perhaps, after a century of almost uniform Phils misery, including a celebration of their own 10,000th loss, it's too much to ask Philadelphia guests to have the class of visiting Yankees or Red Sox boosters who, accustomed to winning teams, invade but don't insult.

Of course, on Wednesday and Thursday, Nats fans could just make "Thanks for Donovan" signs and snicker discretely.

The president, accidentally and unfortunately, played into the day's most unsettling motif -- a desire not to be too closely associated with the Nats in public. Before the game, the chief executive was given a lovely red Nats jacket for his trip to the hill to make the 48th such ceremonial pitch by 13 presidents since William Howard Taft in 1910.

"I've never been to a game with you when you didn't have a [White] Sox jacket," Selig recalled. "He said, 'I got something coming.' And then sure enough, he pulled out the White Sox hat."

And on his head it went.

"Yeah, bad touch there," said Manager Jim Riggleman, a Washington-area native, with a tight grimace.

Most Nats, of course, were delighted to meet the president. Right fielder Willie Harris flashed his '05 World Series ring, as a member of the White Sox, holding it right next to his face as the president approached. New Nats catcher Iván Rodríguez, who showed off his legendary arm throwing out a runner at second on a failed sacrifice bunt, couldn't stop smiling, recalling: "The president called me 'Pudge' right away. So, he knows me."

One misfortune of an 11-1 opening day loss is that the game is forgotten and only the day's ambiance leaves an impression. On this day, that was a blend of glorious weather, Phils cheers and a McNabb buzz that left both the Nats and Selig seething at the NFL breaking big news on Easter that upstaged baseball's symbolic day.

One Nats employee said, "Maybe we should call up Stephen Strasburg the same day as the Redskins [expletive] draft."

The Redskins probably haven't gotten word yet that the Nats even exist. But the NFL certainly knows when baseball starts. Isn't the overlap with the NCAA basketball final and the latest worldwide Tiger Woods confessional enough news static for one day?

"This is opening day. This is baseball," said Selig when asked who won the McNabb deal. "But I'll tell you that I got up at 5:30 a.m. I was watching an unnamed channel. That was all that was on.

"I turned it off," he said tartly.

For Nats fans, this first game was a channel to turn off and then forget. "We've got way more than what we showed today," Desmond said. And he's almost certainly right. Since Riggleman took over, the Nats have been several notches up from the game's worst team, and signing four free agents while losing none hasn't hurt.

Nonetheless, the Nationals have a brutal habit of making the worst impressions at the most painful times. Last year, it was a 12-6 first-game loss that evolved into a hideous sequence of badly pitched games with 54 runs allowed in an 0-7 start. Hello, disaster.

An opening day defeat means nothing. But letting it poison a whole week, which often seeps into an entire month, surely would mean something.

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