- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Fans at RFK Stadium first started noticing it in the top of the second inning when the Washington Nationals took the field wearing maroon and orange caps that instantly clashed with their standard red and white uniforms.

The announcement then came over the stadium PA system, declaring the Nationals would be wearing Virginia Tech hats for the rest of their game against the Atlanta Braves, the club’s small way of honoring the 32 students and teachers in Blacksburg who were killed Monday in the worst shooting rampage in American history.

Standing on the mound, right-hander Jerome Williams wore a maroon hat with an orange “VT” logo. In the dugout, manager Manny Acta and several of his coaches wore white hats with the same logo. Even third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, a former star at the University of Virginia, donned the cap of his in-state rivals and didn’t think twice about doing it.

“I was honored to wear it,” Zimmerman said.

The Nationals lost a ballgame 6-4 to the Braves because they dug themselves into an early hole and then couldn’t quite climb all the way out of it. But they earned the respect of the 17,791 fans in attendance, countless others watching on television and hopefully more than a few members of the extended Virginia Tech family with their tribute to those who suffered through Monday’s horrific events.

“It kind of shows you how little sports mean in the big thing,” Zimmerman said. “It makes you realize how lucky we have it and not to take any days for granted.”

The idea to wear the Hokies hats came from a fan, Dave Lanham, who e-mailed team president Stan Kasten yesterday morning suggesting the tribute. Kasten immediately liked the idea and had club employees get permission from Major League Baseball while tracking down a sporting goods store in Alexandria that was willing to donate the caps.

MLB signed off on the plan, the hats were located and players were told during batting practice they would be wearing them for the game. However, some unforeseen traffic problems prevented the caps from making it to the ballpark in time for the first pitch, so it wasn’t until the second when all nine Washington players took the field in the new caps as the crowd stood and applauded.

“It’s the very least we could do on such short notice,” Kasten said. “This happening in our backyard. We’re more sensitive to this than anyone.”

By then, the Nationals already were trailing 3-0 and facing an uphill battle against Braves ace John Smoltz. They wound up climbing back within a run but couldn’t drive one last man in during a failed seventh-inning rally and were left to suffer their first loss in four days.

Facing a dominating pitcher the likes of Smoltz, the Nationals could ill afford a poor performance by their own starter. So when Jerome Williams took the mound in the first and proceeded to put the Braves’ first five hitters on base (four singles and a walk), the 25-year-old right-hander started mentally kicking himself.

“I’m not confident out there,” he said. “They gave me a shot to be a part of this rotation, and they gave me a shot to be here, and I’m not taking advantage of it. I’ve got to go out there and pitch the way I was pitching before and prove to people I belong here and prove to people I’m a good pitcher.”

Williams (0-3) wound up allowing four runs over five innings, but it was the three-run first that really cost him. Washington now has been outscored 19-0 in the first inning this season, and yesterday’s early deficit made for a difficult evening against a pitcher like Smoltz.

The Nationals did have a chance to come all the way back to take the lead. But after scoring twice in the seventh to cut the deficit to 5-4, Ronnie Belliard failed to get a sacrifice bunt down and wound up striking out on a 1-2 slider from Oscar Villarreal. Right-hander Rafael Soriano then came out of the bullpen and battled through a pair of double-digit at-bats to retire both Zimmerman (on a swinging strikeout) and Dmitri Young (on a fly ball to the left-field corner).

“We had the right guys up,” manager Manny Acta said. “It would have been a totally different situation if we would have moved the runners over to second and third with one out [on the failed Belliard bunt attempt].”

Minute baseball matters, though, seemed trivial at the end of the night. Inside the Nationals clubhouse, a row of autographed hats sat on a table, each bearing well wishes from the players who wore them during the game. One of the caps, worn by left fielder Chris Snelling, will be sent to the Hall of Fame, where it will be included in an exhibit on baseball’s role in American society that includes hats worn by the New York teams following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The Nationals were just happy to do their small part to help with the healing process.

“It was very emotional and very inspiring,” Williams said. “When I got those hats, it felt really good out there with them on.”

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