Fresh start, familiar finish

D.C. baseball returns as Nationals era begins with 8-4 loss to Phillies

April 05, 2005|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - After all the uncertainty, rumors and country-hopping travel the past few years, the baseball club formerly known as the Montreal Expos began anew yesterday.

It wasn't the smoothest baseball debut for the Washington Nationals, a sloppy 8-4 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies before a sellout Citizens Bank Park crowd of 44,080.

Yet it signified a fresh start for the ward of Major League Baseball on an afternoon that symbolically ushers in spring.

"Just being a human being playing in front of 44,000 watching you, that's an unbelievable feeling," said Washington left fielder Terrmel Sledge. "There was a little zing going through my body from head to toe."

Wearing "Washington" blocked across the chest of his gray road uniform, Nationals leadoff hitter Brad Wilkerson walked to home plate at 3:07 p.m. and took a strike from Philadelphia pitcher Jon Lieber.

With that, baseball returned to Washington, albeit from approximately 130 miles away.

"I was a little nervous," Wilkerson said with a laugh. "Seriously, the first at-bat every year you are a little nervous. I was glad to get it out of the way and get on with the rest of the game."

At least the beginning of this beginning was promising. Wilkerson got the club's first milestone out of the way moments later with a leadoff single to right against Lieber (1-0). The Nationals' first run and initial lead in franchise history came in the second inning, when Nick Johnson scored on Sledge's groundout. They didn't score again until the sixth, when Sledge hit a two-run homer to right. The Nationals' first home run was followed by one of the costliest moves of the afternoon.

Faced with peer pressure, a fan in the right-field stands threw Sledge's home run ball back onto the playing field, effectively tossing a pretty penny over the outfield wall. The ball is now headed to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

"It didn't cross my mind when I hit the home run that it was the [franchise's] first home run until now," Sledge said. "[Team president] Tony Tavares said it is going into the Hall of Fame, and my eyes lit up. I was like, `Wow, I can't believe it.' "

Even with Sledge's homer, the Nationals still trailed 7-3 because of a shaky start by ace Livan Hernandez.

Having difficulty getting traction on a wet mound, Hernandez blew the one-run lead in the second after loading the bases with none out. An RBI groundout and sacrifice fly put the Phillies ahead 2-1. They never trailed again.

Pat Burrell, who had three hits and a walk, doubled in Philadelphia's third run in the third. And the Phillies scored four more runs in the fifth, led by new center fielder Kenny Lofton's three-run homer. That chased Hernandez (0-1), who was tagged for seven earned runs in 4 2/3 innings.

"It was one of those rare times that [Hernandez] doesn't go into the seventh, eighth inning," manager Frank Robinson said. "He didn't have his good stuff today. I don't know if it was the mound or the elements, but he just wasn't sharp."

Despite retiring only eight of the 19 batters they faced, five Nationals relievers combined to allow just one run in 3 1/3 innings. It kept the game close and gave Washington a chance for a comeback.

Vinny Castilla walked with the bases loaded in the seventh to close the lead to 7-4. Then Philadelphia reliever Ryan Madson threw three straight balls to Sledge.

But after a called strike, Sledge fouled off a pitch before hitting a full-count sinker to second for a double play.

"It was a good pitch to hit," Sledge said. "I was kicking myself in the butt for a couple of innings. I would like to have that pitch back."

The teams combined for 27 hits in a game that lasted 3 hours, 19 minutes. Eleven of Washington's hits were singles, and few came at clutch times.

"It just goes to show you it's when you get the hits, not how many," Robinson said. "It's when you get the hits."

A big hit in the seventh could have transformed Washington's first major league game since 1971 from disappointment to celebration.

Instead, the players took solace that at least the fanfare from one Opening Day is behind them. And that, despite the nervousness, they made a push in the late innings.

"That's the way the ballclub plays," Wilkerson said. "We never give up. We're going to fight until the end ... We just came up a little short."

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