- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

Years from now, they probably won’t talk about the night they came to Nationals Park and watched the home team beat the Baltimore Orioles in an exhibition game.

They won’t remember that Jason Bergmann threw the first pitch (a low fastball to Brian Roberts) or that Nick Johnson recorded the first hit (a blooper to center) or that Cristian Guzman scored the first run (on Johnson’s first-inning single).

No, all of those events that transpired last night in the Washington Nationals’ 3-0 victory will fade into the back recesses of the minds of the 34,635 who were given tickets to the first professional game at Nationals Park. They’ll quickly be replaced by everything that happens tonight, when the new stadium along the Anacostia River officially opens before a sellout crowd and a national TV audience.

“It was exciting, but I think tomorrow will be better,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “It’s going to be awesome, a great way for this city to celebrate baseball.”

Not that last night’s test run didn’t prove valuable for everyone involved. The consensus opinion at the end of the night: Despite a few hiccups, things went quite well.

“The night was great, and I know that because fan after fan kept telling me that,” team president Stan Kasten said. “We’re going to open her up tomorrow night, and it’s going to work just fine.”

Bergmann tossed five scoreless innings of one-hit ball, a solid final tuneup for the right-hander before he makes his season debut Thursday in Philadelphia.

“It’s cool to have your own park, your fans,” Bergmann said. “It’s only half-full right now and it’s pretty loud. … This is our home park. We’re proud to be here.”

Manager Manny Acta’s newly announced starting lineup made some things happen, scoring two runs in the first off Orioles left-hander Adam Loewen thanks to a leadoff walk from Guzman, a Lastings Milledge hit-by-pitch and RBI hits by Johnson and Austin Kearns.

And when minor league left-hander Mike O’Connor struck out Guillermo Quiroz to end the game and close out a two-hitter for the Washington pitching staff, fireworks spewed from the roof of the center-field parking lot and the bundled-up crowd headed for the exits content to have seen the home team win.

“No complaints whatsoever,” Acta said. “It was beautiful. I heard that we had about 25,000 [fans]. It felt more like 50,000 for us.”

Acta and the Nationals can only imagine what the scene will be like tonight, when a true sellout crowd including President Bush packs the place for the season opener against the Atlanta Braves.

“We know a lot of people are going to be here,” Milledge said. “We know the president will be here. And we know a lot of people will be watching us. We know that. What we want to do is we want to play and we want to win. Nothing else really matters.”

For newcomers like Milledge, tonight represents an opportunity to make a first impression on Washington fans. For veterans like Zimmerman, this will be the latest in a string of memorable moments.

For the man on the mound, Odalis Perez, this signifies a career renaissance, from a journeyman left-hander who signed a minor league contract in spring training to the man who will throw the first official pitch in a ballpark.

“I’m not thinking about anything else,” Perez said. “I’m just thinking about going out there, getting the ball and throwing it for a strike.”

And for someone like Johnson, who hasn’t played in a big league game since he broke his right leg on Sept. 23, 2006, this will be about so much more than a new ballpark or another Opening Night.

“I can’t wait,” Johnson said. “For me, it’s a long time. … The emotions will be running pretty high.”

For the first time, the Nationals will play a meaningful ballgame in their very own park. They won’t have to worry about cramped clubhouse quarters. They won’t have to worry about poor field conditions and chalk lines from a soccer field. And they won’t have to worry about a lack of support, not with 41,888 Nationals fans cheering them on.

“I think it makes us a little more excited to come here every day,” Zimmerman said. “It gives us kind of a sense of pride to kind of protect it. When people come in here, we really don’t want to get beat. It’s ours now. It’s going to be tough to beat us here.”

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