- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 4, 2006

NEW YORK — The Washington Nationals’ second season opener bore little resemblance to their first. The hype and butterflies and sense of history that was so evident on a gorgeous April afternoon in Philadelphia a year ago was nowhere to be found on a cold, raw day at Shea Stadium.

If anything, the Nationals’ 3-2 loss to the New York Mets resembled the frustrating games from the second half of last year. Just as they did so many times in August and September, the Nationals were left pondering missed opportunities, a lack of clutch hitting and yet another one-run loss that easily could have been a win.

The pomp and circumstance of Opening Day was quickly replaced by frustration.

“It was just one of those days,” said manager Frank Robinson, whose club still has six more road games to play before it opens at RFK Stadium on April 11.

The Nationals were 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position, and when they were on the verge of breaking through, they ran themselves into outs.

The most memorable came in the eighth inning, when newcomer Alfonso Soriano trying to score from first on rookie Ryan Zimmerman’s double down the left-field line. Surprisingly waved around by third-base coach Tony Beasley, Soriano was called out on a close play at the plate, though replays appeared to show both Soriano’s hand getting in ahead of the tag and Mets catcher Paul LoDuca dropping the ball.

“I think my hand was in, but I have to see the [replay],” said Soriano, who was the center of attention all afternoon. “There’s nothing you can do about it. The umpire called me out.”

Had Soriano been ruled safe by first-base umpire Tim Tschida, who rotated from his normal position to make the call, the Nationals would have tied the game 3-3 to set up a dramatic finish.

But the 3-2 deficit remained, and the Nationals never seriously threatened again. Jose Vidro had a two-out base hit to left-center off New York closer Billy Wagner, but Vidro tried to stretch it into a double and was easily thrown out to end the game.

“I’ve got to go for second,” said Vidro, who is recovering from two seasons of knee injuries. “There was no doubt in my mind that I was trying to do the right thing. … I thought I could make it. It took a great throw to get me out.”

The sellout crowd of 54,371, the largest Opening Day crowd in Mets history, roared with delight as the home team celebrated in the middle of the field. The Nationals trudged off after managing just two runs on 12 hits.

“We didn’t get that hit,” Vidro said. “We didn’t get that big, big hit. We were right there to put this game out of reach.”

Robinson and General Manager Jim Bowden thought they had solved the team’s hitting problems during a busy offseason. They made the controversial trade for Soriano, who went 2-for-3 and made a few nice plays in left field in his debut. They made Zimmerman, a 21-year-old rookie, their starting third baseman and 24-year-old center fielder Brandon Watson their leadoff hitter. And they hoped to get better production from three key players — Vidro, Jose Guillen and Nick Johnson — who were hurt for much of last year.

Yesterday was only the first game of 162, but the result wasn’t much different.

“We know why we came up short,” Robinson said. “Hopefully, we can take advantage the next time we get 12 hits. I hope it’s not August.”

Their disappointing Opening Day result notwithstanding, the Nationals think they are an improved club from last year’s 81-81 squad. If only they can turn one or two of those nightly missed opportunities around.

“If we can play like we did today over the whole year,” Zimmerman said, “we’re going to have success.”

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

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