- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

It won’t be the same as last year, when the mere sight of a baseball team with “Washington” across the chest was reason to celebrate. No, it’s never the same the second time around.

“You won’t have that hype and excitement and feeling in your body of butterflies like you did last year,” Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. “There’s only one of those. That’s a one-time thing. …

“But I still get excited about Opening Day.”

Who doesn’t? When the Nationals wake up this morning at their New York hotel, they won’t be worried about their nightmare of a spring training. They won’t be concerned about all the injuries, all the uncertainties, all the reasons why most believe this team is in for a long season.

It’s a cliche, but it’s true: Everyone starts from scratch today.

“Forget about everything that happened in spring training,” second baseman Jose Vidro said. “Spring training is spring training. Now it’s the regular season.”

And it couldn’t come a moment sooner for a Nationals club that seems desperate to play in game that actually counts. They will get their wish at 1:10 p.m. today, when rookie center fielder Brandon Watson steps to the plate at Shea Stadium to face 18-year veteran left-hander Tom Glavine, kicking off a three-game series with the Mets.

“I think we’re ready,” catcher Brian Schneider said.

Perhaps Schneider should have said, “I hope we’re ready.” No one really knows whether the Nationals are up for this challenge or not after an eventful and distressful six weeks of spring training.

There were injuries, too many to count. There was sloppy play in the field, resulting in the majors’ worst exhibition record (9-23-1). And there were distractions, whether in the form of the seven players who left camp for extended periods of time to play in the World Baseball Classic or in the form of disgruntled new slugger Alfonso Soriano, who made life miserable for the club before agreeing to switch positions.

Soriano surely will be the center of attention today. Returning to New York, where he first made a name for himself as a budding star second baseman with the Yankees, he will make his first career start in left field. Soriano had less than two weeks’ experience his new position, so no one knows quite what to expect from him when he takes the field this afternoon.

“I cannot wait,” Soriano said. “I worked hard in spring training for Opening Day.”

The spotlight will shine brightly on other Nationals, too. Surely Livan Hernandez will draw attention to himself as he makes his third straight Opening Day start for this franchise, his first since undergoing offseason knee surgery.

The big right-hander struggled in his 2005 debut in Philadelphia, uncharacteristically allowing seven runs in only 42/3 innings. Hernandez followed up that rough start with a brilliant first half to the season, one that had him on the short list of Cy Young Award candidates before his balky right knee gave way and sidetracked his year.

Vidro also is trying to return from an injury-plagued season. The former All-Star second baseman looked like a rejuvenated player this spring but now must prove he can hold up over a 162-game season.

There are two rookies in Washington’s starting lineup: Watson, the speedy 24-year-old who beat out Ryan Church for the center field job this spring, and 21-year-old Ryan Zimmerman, last summer’s No.1 draft pick and a National League Rookie of the Year candidate.

The Nationals struggled at the plate all last season. The Nationals hope the additions of Soriano, Watson and Zimmerman, plus the healthy return of Vidro, help remedy that.

“I think our offense might be a little underestimated,” Zimmerman said. “I mean, our lineup is dangerous. If we can hit and keep putting good swings on the ball like we did [in Friday night’s exhibition against the Baltimore Orioles], I think we’ll be ready.”

The Nationals looked anything but ready during their unsightly exhibition season. Normally sure-handed defensive players routinely bobbled the ball. Normally reliable pitchers were roughed up or, worse, broke down physically. And normally explosive hitters struggled to find their strokes.

“I think sometimes we get too concerned about performances in spring training games,” Robinson said. “I don’t want to get too excited about it. I think about it. I watch it. But I hope this will be put behind us once it starts. I’ve seen it happen. The same team’s looked terrible in spring training, but once the bell rings, they play championship-caliber baseball. I’ve seen hitters go the entire spring without getting a base hit, and then once the bell rings, they come out like gangbusters. So we’ll just have to wait and see which team shows up [today] in New York.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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