- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2005

The proclamation came at precisely 12:05p.m. and brought a loud and cathartic cheer from the 25,453 who braved frigid weather to witness this moment.

“Here they are,” boomed the voice of former Senators public address announcer Charlie Brotman, “your Washington Nationals!”

With that, the generation-long wait was over. Baseball was back in the District, even if it was for only one day and even if it didn’t really count.

The Nationals’ exhibition finale/RFK Stadium debut went off about as well as anyone could have hoped, aside from the fact that the home team lost to the New York Mets 4-3. Fans got to see their new team in person for the first time, players got to see their new digs for the first time and club and city officials got to see how the 44-year-old stadium handled a major league game for the first time in a long time.

More than anything, this charity game served as a test run for the April 14 home opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks and left everyone involved frothing at the mouth in anticipation of the first real home game.

“I compare it to playing off-Broadway,” manager Frank Robinson said. “You get the kinks out and get ready for opening night. This was nice, this was very nice. But it’s not going to be anything like the 14th. I think the 14th is going to be electric.”

Not that yesterday’s exhibition didn’t provide a few electric moments of its own, starting with Brotman’s introduction of the new home team. Two minutes later, right-hander Tomo Ohka delivered the first pitch — a called strike to Mets leadoff hitter Jose Reyes.

Left fielder Brad Wilkerson prompted a hefty cheer from the huddled masses when he led off the bottom of the second with a single through the right side of the infield — the first base hit of the day. And two batters later, center fielder Ryan Church brought the fans to their feet with a towering, three-run homer to right field.

It won’t show up in any record books, but it was the first Nationals homer at RFK, a source of some pride for the 26-year-old rookie.

“That’s the thing: It’s an exhibition game. I don’t really know what to think about that,” said Church, who left the game with tightness in his right groin muscle. “But it did feel good.”

Church’s shot off Mets starter Victor Zambrano proved to be the high point of the day from the Nationals’ perspective. A club that struggled to score runs the last two weeks in Florida continued the trend yesterday, totaling just six hits in the game — two of them coming with two outs in the ninth.

The sluggish offense was a concern for Robinson during the final days of spring training, but he expressed confidence yesterday that his team is prepared to start the season.

“I’m not apprehensive about the team being ready to play,” said the manager, who still has not decided on an Opening Day lineup. “We’re ready.”

Washington’s offense may be struggling, but the pitching staff appears to have been in regular-season shape for weeks. Ohka reinforced that belief yesterday by tossing three hitless innings to start the afternoon before surrendering back-to-back homers to Cliff Floyd and David Wright in the fourth, then two more runs in the fifth.

“Overall, it was a good outing for him,” said Robinson, whose top four starting pitchers (Ohka, Opening Day starter Livan Hernandez, Esteban Loaiza and Zach Day) combined to post a sparkling 2.83 ERA this spring.

Yesterday’s game was something of a whirlwind for the Nationals, who arrived in town only about 12 hours before first pitch and who departed for Philadelphia after the final out was recorded.

Bleary-eyed players began trickling into the refurbished home clubhouse around 8:30 a.m. and immediately began checking out their new digs. Robinson arrived just after 9 a.m., emerging along with right fielder Jose Guillen and 19-year-old shortstop Ian Desmond from a black BMW that dropped them off a few steps from the clubhouse door.

Catcher Brian Schneider had the honor of taking the first batting practice swings at 9:30 a.m. and remarked at how big the ballpark looked, especially in the 380-foot gaps.

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