- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2005

PHILADELPHIA — After spending the last week trying different combinations at the top of his batting order, Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson ultimately went back to his old standby.

Robinson chose Brad Wilkerson as his Opening Day leadoff hitter even though the 27-year-old outfielder hadn’t been used in that role once this spring.

Wilkerson, though, clearly was Robinson’s best option at the top of the order after last week’s demotion of Endy Chavez. Shortstop Cristian Guzman (two games) and first baseman Nick Johnson (four games) each got a tryout during the final days of spring training, but neither was cut out for the job.

So Robinson went to Wilkerson, who in 107 games leading off last year posted an impressive .382 on-base percentage. He was hoping all spring to bat fifth, where he could drive in more runs.

Guzman batted second, while Johnson batted fifth ahead of third baseman Vinny Castilla, a mild surprise.

“I just feel like it’s the best lineup,” said Robinson, who actually admitted to coming up with his eventual order nearly a week ago.

Wilkerson made the most of his first at-bat, sending a bloop single to right field for the first hit in Nationals history. The rest of his day was less memorable — he finished 1-for-5 and struck out in his final three at-bats.

“Frank kind of gave me an idea [I’d be hitting leadoff] a couple of weeks ago after they knew what they were going to do with Endy,” Wilkerson said. “That’s when I found out.”

The leadoff spot wasn’t the only place foreign to Wilkerson yesterday. He was forced to move from left to center field after Ryan Church was scratched with a strained groin.

Church, who would have been the Nationals’ starting center fielder as a rookie, hurt himself chasing after a home run in Sunday’s exhibition game at RFK Stadium but insisted he felt good enough to play. Robinson wouldn’t let him take a chance.

“It’s a bummer,” Church said. “But I have to look at it long term like Frank said this morning when I talked to him. One or two days [out] compared to six weeks is much better.”

Robinson said Church could be back in the lineup when the series resumes tomorrow. Terrmel Sledge started in left field and wound up hitting the first home run in Nationals history.

“I’m geeked up,” the second-year outfielder said. “I’m pumped up for this. This is a dream.”

Ceremonial first pitch

It was only fitting that Del Unser, who played in the Washington Senators’ final game at RFK Stadium and also played for the Phillies, be asked to throw the ceremonial first pitch.

Unser, who was originally signed by the Senators in 1966, was Washington’s starting right fielder that fateful night of Sept. 30, 1971. Unser, 60, also had two playing stints with the Phillies — 1973-74 and 1979-82.

Wearing a replica Senators jersey No. 30, the southpaw Unser was low and outside with his ceremonial toss to Phillies backup catcher Todd Pratt on a sunny but blustery day.

The wind actually threw a glitch into Unser’s ceremony. The U.S. Navy parachute team, the Leap Frogs, were supposed to jump into Citizens Bank Park and present Unser with the official game ball. However, 20 mph gusts yesterday scrapped the original plan and the Phillies’ neurotic mascot, the Phanatic, brought the ball to Unser in a briefcase.

The series will have another Washington/Philadelphia connection tomorrow. Mickey Vernon, one of the greatest players in Senators history, will throw the first pitch.

Extra bases

The game drew a sizable contingent of prospective owners of the Nationals, with members of bidding groups led by Fred Malek, William Collins III and Mark Lerner all making the trip. The long-delayed auction process of the franchise is expected to resume late this month. …

Bob Whitelaw, lead executive for the new Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, praised the debut of Mel Proctor and Ron Darling as the Nationals’ lead television announcing crew. Even though Proctor and Darling had not worked together before, Whitelaw said he was encouraged by their interplay.

“They sound very comfortable together. With the time we’ve had to put this together, which has really been nothing, it’s remarkable,” Whitelaw said.

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