The Washington Times - April 30, 2009, 03:37PM

Back on Opening Day — and doesn’t that feel like an eternity ago at this point? — I wrote about the daunting scheduled the Nationals were facing to open the season. Their first 21 scheduled games all would be against NL East opponents, and it would not be until April 30 when they would finally see someone from another division.

Well, what do you know, today is April 30. The St. Louis Cardinals are in town, and the Nats couldn’t be happier to be done with their division for a while. Their record, of course, is 5-15. (Only 20 total games because of a rainout against the Phillies.) Not the kind of start they were looking for.

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As I wrote back then, this team was very motivated to get off to a good start, because the last few seasons proved how tough it can be to bounce back from a rough April. In 2006, Washington opened 2-9 and finished 71-91. In 2007, the Nats started 1-8 and finished 73-89. And last year, they followed a 3-0 start with a 1-9 stretch en route to a 102-loss season.

“Everybody’s going to go through those stretches where they don’t play well,” Nick Johnson said at the time. “But it would be nice to come out of the gates hot.”

So much for those hopes. The Nats have the majors’ worst record, and they’re already 7 1/2 games out of first place in the NL East (and that’s with Florida having just endured a seven-game losing streak).

Tonight, though, perhaps signals the start of something new. Beginning with this game against the Cardinals, Washington plays its next 14 games against teams from the NL Central (St. Louis, Cincinnati) and NL West (Los Angeles, Arizona, San Francisco). Not that these opponents are cupcakes — the Cardinals and Dodgers have two of the best records in baseball — but at least they are someone new. Sometimes division opponents get so familiar with each other that they know every player’s tendencies in every situation. Maybe the sight of an unfamiliar opponent will be good for the Nats’ psyches.

One final note for now… The Nats are partnering with the Baseball Tomorrow Fund to collect new and gently used baseball and softball equipment and donate them to D.C. public high school programs. Fans who are coming to the games tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday are encouraged to enter through the center-field gates and bring their equipment with them to donate to this worthy cause.

- Mark Zuckerman