WASHINGTON - A Navy chorus sang "God Bless America," members of the U.S. Army National Guard unfurled a giant American flag and the beaming President of the United States threw out the first pitch.
For the first time in 34 years, America's pastime returned to the nation's capital last night, doing so with patriotic gusto and a who's who list of Inside the Beltway heavyweights.
Yet the real movers and shakers here were a Mexican third baseman, a Cuban pitcher and the rest of the shiny-new, first-place Washington Nationals.
Team ace Livan Hernandez nearly threw a complete-game shutout and Vinny Castilla had three extra-base hits, including the first regular-season home run at RFK Stadium in three-plus decades, as the Nationals beat the Arizona Diamondbacks, 5-3.
The sellout crowd of 45,596 soaked it all up.
"I was so surprised and so happy with such a boisterous crowd," said left fielder Brad Wilkerson. "It seemed like every ball was a boo and every strike was a cheer. That's a great feeling."
Strobe-like flashbulbs popped when Hernandez threw the game's first pitch, a strike, at 7:06 p.m. Two hours and 33 minutes later, the buzz was still palpable.
Hernandez received a standing ovation when he walked off the mound in the ninth. And old RFK shook while the fans chanted "Let's go, Nats" as closer Chad Cordero induced a game-ending fly ball by pinch hitter Tony Clark to earn his second save.
"I never knew the fans could be in a game like that," Wilkerson said. "I know it is Opening Night and everybody is excited, but I think it is going to continue."
The night could not have gone much better for Washington's new sweethearts.
Hernandez (1-1) carried a one-hitter into the ninth before allowing a three-run homer by Chad Tracy to wipe out the shutout. He was upset he didn't finish what he started, but it was still a memorable night from beginning to end.
"It's something I am never going to forget," said Hernandez, who allowed three hits and six walks in 8 1/3 innings. "When I am old and retired I can tell everybody I threw the first pitch ... and it was a strike."
While Hernandez dominated, Castilla went from questionable lineup status to hero. He had missed the past two starts due to a sore muscle in his right shoulder and said he was prepared to sit this one out, despite its significance.
"If I wouldn't have felt good, I wouldn't have played because I didn't want to hurt the team," Castilla said, before adding, "But in my mind, I wanted to play this game.
"I'd have to not be able to play at all to miss this game."
Castilla doubled in his first at-bat, but was stranded at second base. In the fourth, he came up with two men on base and stroked a two-run triple to right, later scoring on Brian Schneider's sacrifice fly for a 3-0 lead.
In the sixth, Castilla hit a two-run homer to left, his second of the season and fourth RBI of the evening. He had a chance at a cycle in the eighth, but was hit in the left shoulder by a Lance Cormier pitch.
Castilla had to settle for a three-hit night, not bad for a guy who hadn't played a full game in a few days.
At least temporarily, the Nationals (6-4) are alone in first place in the National League East, a half game ahead of idle Florida and Atlanta. Last year, their former identity, the Montreal Expos, lost 95 games and finished last in the division.
"Anytime you are in first place no matter whether it is the first day ... or 10 days into the season, it is nice to be there," Nationals manager Frank Robinson said, "As long as you keep it in perspective and understand we haven't done anything yet."
Now, the challenge is to keep winning and keep RFK packed.
"It was a great atmosphere, and the players really appreciated it," Robinson said. "I just hope that the fans continue to turn out. I know it has a lot to do with the way we perform on the field, and we will try to perform so they will continue to have something to come out for and believe in."