- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2005

PHILADELPHIA — It’s not that the players inside the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse don’t appreciate all the attention they are receiving and the significance of Monday’s season opener against the Philadelphia Phillies.

These are, after all, mostly the same players who used to languish in relative anonymity in Montreal. Thus, they are happy to wade through a sea of reporters and cameras to get to their lockers in exchange for the higher profiles that come with relocating to the nation’s capital.

That said, there were more than a few players inside the visitors’ clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park Monday evening relieved that Opening Day was over and eager to move on to the real task at hand.

“There was a lot of hype coming into this game,” outfielder Brad Wilkerson said following the Nationals’ 8-4 loss to the Phillies. “Every Opening Day is like that, but there was a little bit of extra spice with us moving to the new city. I bet everybody on this team’s glad it’s over. Now we can just go out, relax and play baseball.”

With the hoopla of Monday’s opener behind them, the Nationals enjoyed a day off yesterday. They will return to the ballpark tonight refreshed and ready for Game 2, both of this three-game series in Philadelphia and of the 162-game marathon that lies ahead.

Given the head-spinning array of events they experienced over the previous 72 hours or so — from breaking spring training camp in Viera, Fla., to a quick stop in St. Petersburg, Fla., for an exhibition game against the Devil Rays, to their first visit to RFK Stadium, to Monday’s opener in Philadelphia — the Nationals needed to catch their breaths.

They also needed to find their way after their disappointing season debut.

Not much went Washington’s way in the opener. Staff ace Livan Hernandez was knocked out after just 42/3 labored innings. New leadoff hitter Wilkerson (despite recording the first hit in Nationals history) ended the day with three straight strikeouts.

And perhaps most discouraging, a Nationals lineup that struggled to score runs over the final two weeks of spring training struggled to score in its first game that actually counted despite rapping out 13 hits (11 singles).

The Nationals, though, were anemic in the clutch. They were 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position, managing to score their only two runs in those situations on a groundout and a bases-loaded walk.

It was only one game, but it was cause for concern afterward.

“We couldn’t get that big, big rally going,” said second baseman Jose Vidro, who went 1-for-5. “Most of them were a hit here and a hit there. We didn’t put five or six hits together and push. We’re fighting. We had very good at-bats. We seem to be going deep in the counts, but it wasn’t enough.”

Three consecutive, inning-ending at-bats epitomized the Nationals’ offensive struggles:

• In the fifth inning, Vidro came up with runners on first and second and two out. He flied out to left.

• In the sixth, Wilkerson came up with runners on first and third and two out. He struck out.

• In the seventh, with the Phillies seemingly on the ropes, left fielder Terrmel Sledge came up with the bases loaded and one out, representing the go-ahead run. Despite working the count to 3-0, Sledge eventually grounded into a 4-6-3 double play, killing the Nationals’ last, best chance for victory.

“We had some opportunities with guys on base,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “We didn’t come through with some of them, but overall the team hit well. We got 13 hits. That’s a positive because our offense was lacking a little bit during spring training.”

The Nationals will be hoping for better results in the clutch tonight against Philadelphia right-hander Brett Myers, and they have history on their side. In three games against the Expos last season, Myers was 0-3 with a 12.10 ERA.

Washington starter Zach Day, meanwhile, was outstanding in two starts against the Phillies last year, going 1-0 with a 1.84 ERA. After Monday’s loss, the pressure would appear to be on Day, who was bumped up in the rotation from No. 5 to No. 2 after Tony Armas Jr. went on the disabled list with a pulled groin. The 26-year-old right-hander, though, didn’t seem fazed by the challenge.

“We’d have like to have won this game,” he said Monday night. “But it’s not a live-or-die situation. I’m just going to go out there, do my thing and give us a chance to win. That’s what I try to do every time out.”

Staff writer Ken Wright contributed to this article.

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