- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2008

Nothing could spoil last night for the Washington Nationals. Not the first home run in their sparkling new stadium being hit by an opposing player (Atlanta’s Chipper Jones). Not a passed ball in the ninth inning — with two out — enabling the Braves to tie the game 2-2. Nothing. I’m pretty sure Congress passed legislation to that effect last week.

So when Ryan Zimmerman stepped to the plate with two gone and nobody on in the bottom of the ninth, well, there was only one place Peter Moylan’s 1-0 pitch was going — into the left-center field stands. Right?

And sure enough, it went screaming over the fence — a low liner that sent the sellout crowd of 39,389 into an explosion of joy and gave the Nats a 3-2 victory they’ll remember, oh, forever … given the circumstances.

Heck, the Grand Opening aspect to the evening was just part of it. How often does the president of the United States show up in your clubhouse, throw out the first ball and then, nine innings later, “the face of the franchise,” as Manny Acta called him, hits a walk-off homer?

Some things you can’t make up — and this First Day of the Rest of the Nationals’ Life is one of them. Zimmerman’s game-winner, for instance. Ryan might be the team’s Alex Ovechkin, but he has never had much success against Moylan, a nasty sidearmer. “I’ve never really hit the ball out of the infield against that guy,” he said.

But Moylan missed low with his first offering, and the Face of the Franchise guessed he wouldn’t throw the next one in the same place and risk falling behind 2-0. Being a prodigy, Zimmerman guessed right: He got a fastball up — and proceeded to clobber it.

“I was just trying to get on so we could bring Nick [Johnson] up,” he said.

Ah, yes, Nick Johnson. He was the other half of this perfect story — the guy who, after being sidelined for more than a year with a broken leg, drove in the Nationals’ First Official Run in their new park. But it was how he drove it in that was the icing.

After knocking one over the head of first baseman Mark Teixeira down the right field line, he turned an RBI single into a hustle double. Said Acta: “You couldn’t have written it any better. That was special.”

Another run-scoring hit, this one by Austin Kearns, followed, staking Nats starter Odalis Perez to a 2-0 first inning lead. And Perez made it stand up for five innings, turning a 2-1 cushion over to his bullpen. Trouble was, the other team’s pitcher, Tim Hudson, was “on,” too. Extremely “on.” In fact, Kearns’ single was followed by 24 straight Nationals outs.

Yup, as impossible as it seemed, the Nats didn’t have a single base runner between Kearns in the first and Zimmerman in the ninth — and lived to tell about it. As omens and new stadiums go, you can’t beat that.

“Hopefully,” said Acta, “we won’t get in an early hole [like they did last season] and can build on this.”

Civic pride aside, the Grand Opening couldn’t have gone much better. Consider: In 1962, when the Senators played their first game at RFK Stadium, their first three batters — Jimmy Piersall, Danny O’Connell and Chuck Hinton — struck out. The Nationals, on the other hand, wasted little time putting the aforementioned two runs on the board.

And unlike 1911, when the Original Senators were without the services of Hall of Famer Walter Johnson — a holdout that year — for their debut in new (partially built) Griffith Stadium, the Nats were at least able to pitch The Best They’ve Got, Perez, who acquitted himself well.

As for the weather, who can complain about the sub-50 degree temperatures that invigorated last night’s proceedings? After all, didn’t this franchise start out in Canada? What’s 49 degrees to the Former Montreal Expos?

Besides, as any baseball historian can tell you, William Howard Taft spent the Senators’ 1911 home opener bundled up in a “heavy fur overcoat,” according to reports. And in ‘62, John F. Kennedy had to endure a brief rain delay (but still stuck it out for the whole game).

By the end of the evening, the new place already felt like home. No, on second thought, it was even better than that. It was like the Nationals, after renting an apartment for three years, had moved into a mansion previously inhabited by Marjorie Merriweather Post.

It’s all theirs now — and so is Washington. Especially if they keep winning games like this.

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