- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2005

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PHILADELPHIA — The sky was blue, the bunting was hanging from the facade of the packed ballpark and the lettering on the road team’s gray jerseys said “Washington.”

What more could long-suffering District baseball fans have asked for?

Well, aside from a victory, of course.

There was no happy ending to the first game in Washington Nationals history. An uncharacteristic performance from staff ace Livan Hernandez, coupled with a lack of clutch hitting, resulted in an 8-4 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies and spoiled an otherwise remarkable and historic Opening Day at Citizens Bank Park.

When Brad Wilkerson stepped into the batter’s box at 3:07 p.m. and took a fastball from Jon Lieber for strike one, 34 years of misery in the nation’s capital were vanquished. Major league baseball was back in Washington, and it was here to stay.

But once home plate umpire Gary Darling tossed that first ball to clubhouse manager Mike Wallace so it could be shipped off to Cooperstown, history was no longer on the minds of everyone in Nationals uniforms. The season was under way; now it was time to get down to business, and suddenly wins and losses were more important than historic moments.

The only history left for this relocated club to record is the one that counts most: the first victory. That will have to come some other day. The old saying is true again this morning, with a slight twist: Washington — first in war, first in peace, last in the National League East.

“I like the way we battled all the way,” manager Frank Robinson said. “We didn’t get the key hits, but I liked the offense. Overall, I feel good about it, other than we didn’t win.”

The Nationals had their chances to cap the day with a stirring comeback. Trailing 7-3 in the seventh inning, they cut the deficit to three on a bases-loaded walk, then brought the leading run to the plate in the form of left fielder Terrmel Sledge.

Sledge, a last-minute addition to Robinson’s starting lineup after center fielder Ryan Church was held out with a strained groin, already had gone into the history books the previous inning by hitting the Nationals’ first home run.

And the second-year outfielder was in prime position to come through with an even bigger hit this time, having drawn three straight balls from Phillies reliever Ryan Madson. Moments later, Sledge was trotting back into the outfield, having just killed the rally with a 4-6-3 double play.

“I was just a little too amped up,” he said. “I got a real good pitch to hit, middle-in, and I just rolled over on it.”

Sledge’s double-play grounder was representative of the Nationals’ entire day at the plate. Despite rapping out 13 hits (11 of them singles), they were 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position and stranded 10 runners on base.

“It’s when you get the hits, not how many,” Robinson said.

The Phillies were testament to that belief. Though they only produced one more hit than Washington, they made the most of their scoring opportunities, coming through with enough clutch hits to walk away with a convincing win.

“They came up with the big hits,” said center fielder Wilkerson, who went 1-for-5 with three strikeouts. “That’s what this game is all about. They did their job today. We didn’t do ours.”

The afternoon started off well enough, with Wilkerson leading off the game with a bloop single over second baseman Placido Polanco’s head for the first hit in Nationals history. Hernandez struck out Bobby Abreu and Jim Thome back-to-back in the bottom of the inning, stranding a runner on third. And when Nick Johnson trotted home on Sledge’s groundout in the second inning, Washington had its first lead 1-0.

It was all downhill from then on.

Hernandez, clearly not himself, gave up two runs in the second, one of them on a sacrifice fly by Lieber (1-0) that might have left the ballpark if not for a stiff breeze. The Phillies added another in the third on Pat Burrell’s double to right.

Despite his struggles, Hernandez did manage to keep the Nationals in the game … until the fifth. Burrell’s bases-loaded sacrifice fly brought home the Phillies’ fourth run of the day. Moments later, Kenny Lofton drilled a first-pitch fastball inside the right-field foul pole for a three-run homer, bringing the sellout crowd of 44,080 to its feet and sending Hernandez (0-1) to the showers.

“I had one bad pitch, Kenny Lofton hit a home run and that was the game,” said Hernandez, who was charged with seven runs and eight hits in 42/3 innings.

Five Washington relievers did their best to keep the game in hand, giving up just one more run despite allowing 10 baserunners in 31/3 combined innings.

And the Nationals did their best to try to get themselves back in the game, thanks in large part to Sledge, who sent a sixth-inning fastball from Lieber over the right-field fence to cut the Phillies’ lead to 7-3.

“I can’t put it into words,” the 28-year-old outfielder said of hitting the first home run in club history. “It was big to have that ball go into the stands.”

It would have been bigger had Sledge — or any of his teammates — come through with one more clutch hit in the game’s final three innings.

They didn’t, of course. Phillies relievers Tim Worrell and Billy Wagner shut the door in the eighth and ninth innings. And when pinch-hitter Wil Cordero grounded out to third to end the game, the excitement of the Nationals’ first Opening Day was a thing of the past, and the reality of the long season ahead had sunk in.

“We showed a lot of fight today,” Wilkerson said. “We came up short, but I’m proud of the guys. … It’s a long season. We’ve got 161 to go. We’ll come out ready Wednesday.”

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