- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 1, 2006

They tried to jazz it up with a fancy-sounding name — the “Battle of the Beltway” — and by touting this as the first of what will be many games between two budding rivals.

Make no mistake, though. Last night’s exhibition game between the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles at RFK Stadium was just that, an exhibition.

Both teams’ regulars got their work in and then got out. New Nationals players like Alfonso Soriano and Royce Clayton got their first taste of RFK. A crowd of 18,442 that was only slightly more pro-Washington than pro-Baltimore caught a glimpse of baseball before the real show starts Monday in New York and next week back in the District.

The Orioles won the game 9-6, and the two teams will do it all over again today up the road at Camden Yards.

The real Beltway Rivalry? That will have to wait until May 19, when these clubs reconvene at RFK for their first regular-season, interleague series. And even that, Nationals manager Frank Robinson said, won’t necessarily be enough.

“It has to be cultivated,” he said. “Just because you’re playing a team down the road, that doesn’t mean it’s a rivalry. Both teams have to be productive and winning over years. You have to create the fan interest and the media interest. That makes it a rivalry.”

Last night was merely a test run, a chance for the Nationals to see whether RFK has changed at all since the last time they were here (it hasn’t) and for fans to get back into a baseball mind-set three days before Opening Day.

Not that a whole lot of fans chose to participate. Last night’s crowd was considerably smaller than at any game last season, and even those who came had to deal with some hardships.

An unfortunate combination of Friday evening rush hour, road construction, tourists packing the city to look at the cherry blossoms and a ticketing snafu resulted in a near-empty RFK when District Mayor Anthony A. Williams threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Thousands of fans who purchased tickets online were unable to print them off their home computers because of a Web site glitch at tickets.com, the Nationals’ new ticket distributor. Though there were self-service ticket kiosks outside RFK, a club official said most fans didn’t use them and instead chose to stand in line at will call.

So the strains of “The Star Spangled Banner” echoed a little louder around the mostly empty ballpark, though they couldn’t mute the Baltimore fans who shouted “O!” at the appropriate moment, nor the Washington fans who responded by booing.

The stadium slowly filled out as the night wore on, though, and by the third or fourth inning, it didn’t feel all that different from your typical weeknight at the ballpark.

Orioles fans cheered and Nationals fans groaned when Jose Guillen let Jay Gibbons’ first-inning base hit to roll through his legs, allowing two runs to score.

Two innings later, Washington fans cheered and Baltimore fans groaned when Guillen roped a two-run double to left-center, tying the game at 2-2.

And when the Jumbotron showed three girls wearing George Mason T-shirts, the whole stadium cheered. So there were some things everyone could agree on.

Like the Nationals’ lackluster performance on the field, which was not all that unlike their performance in Florida in the last month.

“Pitching wasn’t sharp, fielding wasn’t sharp,” said Robinson, whose team is 9-22-1 in exhibition play. “That’s why it reminded me of [the rest of this spring].”

John Patterson, Washington’s No. 2 starter and one of its few bright spots this spring, was not his usual self. The right-hander, who had surrendered only two runs over his previous 17-1/3 spring training innings, was roughed up a bit — he allowed four runs (three earned) on six hits in five innings while racking up a high pitch count of 92.

“I didn’t feel real great tonight,” Patterson said. “But it was good to get a good look at Baltimore before the season starts and get my work in. That’s what I needed to do.”

Neither Patterson nor the relievers who followed him out of the Nationals’ new right-field bullpen (where the sunlight isn’t as intense as it is in left field) were aided much by their defense. Continuing a disturbing spring trend, Washington committed two errors while also misplaying a few more balls.

Rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was charged with one of the errors in the sixth inning (giving him a team-high eight this spring) and nearly was charged with another two batters later.

The Nationals’ lack of hitting also has been a concern, although it wasn’t as lacking yesterday as it has been. Jose Vidro, Guillen, Brendan Harris and Zimmerman all doubled (Zimmerman twice), but Robinson’s troops didn’t make much more of a dent into starter Kris Benson or the Orioles bullpen.

Even when they did appear to get a hold of one, they were done in by RFK’s spacious outfield. Guillen hit perhaps the hardest ball of the night in the fifth, a rocket to center field that had the Washington slugger doing his home run trot. Guillen, of course, should know better by now. The man who hit just three of his 24 homers at RFK last season was robbed again and trotted back to the dugout in disbelief after Luis Matos hauled this one in at the warning track.

Again, though, this was an exhibition. The Nationals certainly are looking forward to the regular season.

“It was fun [tonight],” Zimmerman said. “To come out there and be under the bright lights and the fans and the noise, it’s exciting. It gets you ready to go even more.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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