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 on a night with patriotic trimmings.
In the end, though, a Mexican third baseman, a Cuban pitcher and the rest of the brand-new Washington Nationals provided the unforgettable highlights on the evening America's pastime finally returned to the nation's capital.
Livan Hernandez nearly threw a complete game shutout and Vinny Castilla had three extra base hits, including the first regular-season home run in 34 years at RFK Stadium, as the Washington Nationals beat the Arizona Diamondbacks, 5-3.
The sellout crowd of 45,596 soaked all of it up.
"I was so surprised and so happy with such a boisterous crowd." left fielder Brad Wilkerson said. "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 strike at 7:06 p.m. The fans gave Hernandez a standing ovation when he walked off the mound in the ninth. They booed lustily when Castilla was plunked by a pitch in the eighth.
Old RFK shook while the fans chanted "Let's Go Nats' as closer Chad Cordero induced a game-ending fly ball by Arizona's Tony Clark for 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 been much better for the Nationals.
Hernandez (1-1) carried a one- hitter into the ninth before allowing a three-run homer by Chad Tracy to wipe out the shutout.
Still, it was a tremendous night for Hernandez, from beginning to end.
"Its something I am never going to forget." he said. "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 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.
In the sixth, Castilla hit a two- run homer to left, his second of the season. He had a chance at a cycle in the eighth but was hit by Diamondbacks pitcher Lance Cormier. He had to settle for a three-hit night, not bad for a guy who hadn't played a full game in a few days.
"To be a part of a night that's so special, anybody in their right mind would want to play tonight, especially an everyday player like him." Wilkerson said. 'He was going to play no matter what."
At least for now, the Nationals (6-4) moved into first place all alone in the National League East, a half game ahead of idle Florida and Atlanta.
"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. 'But as long as you keep it in perspective and understand we haven't done anything yet."
Still, it's been an impressive start for a team that lost 95 games last season.
"This team is very good." Hernandez said. "There is a complete package here. If everyone keeps working together, we are going to surprise a lot of people."
Now, the challenge is keeping the sellout crowds coming back to RFK.
"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."