Wednesday, April 5, 2006

NEW YORK — There was some good (12 hits, mostly solid pitching) and there was some bad (the lack of timely hitting, the lack of basic fundamentals).

And if not for the ugly (umpire Tim Tschida’s incorrect out call on Alfonso Soriano’s slide into the plate) the Washington Nationals might have a more upbeat attitude today.

Instead, the bad and the ugly from Monday’s season-opening, 3-2 loss to the New York Mets easily overshadowed the good. And so the Nationals will spend more than 48 hours thinking about the first contest of a 162-game season before they set foot on the field at Shea Stadium for their second outing.

“This is one game,” manager Frank Robinson said following Monday’s loss. “You can’t judge the moves we made over the course of the winter or the people that are here over one ballgame. I’m sure the Mets are happy to escape with this ballgame today, and they expect more from their people and their lineup that they have. It was just one of those days. … This is one game. We know why we came up short today.”

The Nationals will get their chance to rectify matters tonight, when John Patterson faces rookie Brian Bannister in what looks like a favorable matchup for the visiting team.

Patterson, Washington’s No.2 starter behind Livan Hernandez, debuts, coming off a breakthrough season and a spectacular spring and appears poised to pick up right where he left off. Bannister, meanwhile, gets the call from Mets manager Willie Randolph because a toe injury delayed Pedro Martinez’s first start until tomorrow and Victor Zambrano suffered a hamstring injury late during spring training.

Of course, favorable matchups are only as good as a team’s execution, and Washington certainly didn’t produce enough Monday afternoon.

Despite cranking out 12 hits against New York’s Tom Glavine and two relievers, the Nationals scored just two runs. They had plenty of opportunities, but went a measly 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position. In all, the Nationals stranded nine men on base (eight of them in scoring position).

They couldn’t execute a sacrifice bunt, or a basic rundown play between first and second bases. And they struck out four times with runners on base.

“We left runners in scoring position quite a bit,” said shortstop Royce Clayton, who stranded two himself. “Sometimes you’ve got to tip your hat to the pitcher doing a good job, but we had our opportunities and we just didn’t take advantage of it.”

This was a familiar topic for Nationals fans who agonized nightly with the club last summer as it struggled to produce timely hits during its second-half slide.

General manager Jim Bowden traded for Soriano, traded away Vinny Castilla to make Ryan Zimmerman his starting third baseman and overhauled a bench that collectively batted .199 as pinch-hitters a year ago.

But there were signs of improvement Monday. Washington totaled at least 12 hits in only eight games after the All-Star break last season. Eight of the Nationals’ nine starters Monday (all but catcher Brian Schneider) reached base. Soriano and Zimmerman had two hits apiece. Jose Vidro had three.

“This team is a lot better than the team we had last year,” said Vidro, who looks a lot better than the player who battled injuries throughout 2005. “I like the attitude from the guys.”

The Nationals came up short Monday in large part because of one controversial play at the plate. Replays of Soriano touching the plate ahead of the tag of Mets catcher Paul LoDuca (who also dropped the ball) were shown repeatedly yesterday.

Had he scored on Zimmerman’s double down the left-field line, Washington would have tied the game 3-3 in the eighth, with an opportunity to take the lead. Even had third-base coach Tony Beasley held Soriano up, the Nationals would have been in great shape (runners on second and third, no outs) to win the game.

“I made an aggressive decision, and I felt like I made the right decision,” said Beasley, who was hired in part because the club felt former third-base coach Dave Huppert wasn’t aggressive enough. “Usually I am a little safer with no outs. But this was a chance we took and it just didn’t work out.”

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

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