- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2008

Ryan Zimmerman strode to the plate, knowing very well what the situation called for.

Really, it seemed like everyone inside sold-out Nationals Park was thinking the same thing when the face of the Washington Nationals franchise dug in against Atlanta Braves reliever Peter Moylan with two outs in the ninth and the game still hanging in the balance.

In the owner’s box, Mark Lerner turned to Ted Leonsis and predicted what was about to happen. Well, it’s all set up for Zimmerman, the Nationals owner said.

Photos:Nats christen new stadium with win

In the first-base dugout, Lastings Milledge couldn’t think of anyone else he would rather see at the plate right then. He’s the best, the outfielder said. Not to take anything from anybody, but in that situation, he’s going to be the man to close the deal.

Inside the home clubhouse, starting pitcher Odalis Perez saw a stat on television pointing out that Zimmerman ranked second in the majors last season with 18 game-winning RBI.

Hey, he might have 19 tonight, Perez said. And here comes the pitch. Game over.

Yes, game over. Zimmerman’s solo blast off Moylan into the front row of the “Red Porch” restaurant area in left-center was merely the storybook ending to a perfect night of baseball on South Capitol Street: a 3-2 win by the Nationals in front of a sellout crowd and a national television audience that saw what fans in these parts have seen for more than two years.

If the game’s on the line, Zimmerman is going to come through.

“I enjoy being in those situations,” the 23-year-old third baseman said. “I have been lucky enough to have a few hits where I have ended games like that. … It’s nice to be that guy they want up there. You take pride in that. It’s a tough spot to be in, so anytime you can do that, you have to cherish it.”

No one who was there to see Zimmerman’s latest bit of drama will soon forget it. A tense inaugural game at Nationals Park that featured an early offensive outburst, a tight pitchers’ duel and then a blown save in the top of the ninth ended the only way the home team could have hoped: with a walk-off homer.

“You couldn’t have written it any better,” manager Manny Acta said.

No, the Nationals couldn’t have drawn up a better way to start the season, and they couldn’t have done it early on against a more-daunting opponent.

Few pitchers have dominated this franchise like Atlanta’s Tim Hudson, who entered last night’s game with a 5-1 ERA and 1.09 ERA in eight career starts against Washington. His numbers in four head-to-head matchups last year: 4-0 with an 0.60 ERA and 26 strikeouts to three walks.

So when Cristian Guzman greeted the 32-year-old right-hander with a sharp single to right on his first pitch of the night, it was a particularly encouraging sign of what might lie ahead.

A few minutes later with Guzman standing on third, Nick Johnson fought off a 1-2 pitch from Hudson and sent it down the right-field line. As Guzman came in to score the evening’s first run, Johnson bolted for second and stretched his hit into a double.

The crowd roared with approval, giving a standing ovation to Johnson, who had tears in his eyes when he was introduced for his first game since he broke his right leg on Sept. 23, 2006.

Those fans were back on their feet moments later when Austin Kearns delivered his own two-out single to right, with Johnson showing off his healthy legs by bounding all the way around from second to make it 2-0.

Little did the Nationals know how precious those early runs would be. It didn’t take long for Hudson to find his groove after that, and the right-hander responded by retiring the next 19 batters he faced, holding Washington without a baserunner until he departed following the seventh.

No matter. The Nationals simply asked their unlikely ace to match his counterpart pitch for pitch, and in many ways Perez did just that. The 30-year-old left-hander hardly dominated, but he did exactly what his team needed: retired batters when it counted, tossing five innings of one-run ball.

Only Chipper Jones connected off Perez, sending a solo homer in the fourth into the same section Zimmerman found a couple hours later.

“I did what I was asked to do,” Perez said.

Washington’s relief corps was in position to finish things off, with Saul Rivera, Ray King and Luis Ayala bridging the gap to the ninth inning, when a surprising figure emerged from the bullpen: Jon Rauch.

With closer Chad Cordero unavailable after developing right shoulder tendinitis during pregame warmups — Cordero received a cortisone shot and will miss at least another two or three days — Rauch was left to pitch the ninth. The setup man allowed a one-out double to Mark Teixeira, then watched in horror as catcher Paul Lo Duca couldn’t handle a mis-thrown fastball that skipped to the backstop and allowed pinch-runner Martin Prado to score the tying run.

No matter. All that did was set the stage for more drama: Zimmerman at the plate in the ninth. And Zimmerman rounded the bases to a standing ovation, right arm pumping and a mob of teammates awaiting his arrival at the plate, anything seemed possible.

“You can’t write a script any better than that to end the game,” Zimmerman said. “It turned out perfect.”

SEEN AND HEARD AT NATIONALS PARK

 The place to be: There were tons of people milling around the outfield plazas before the game, which is exactly how Nationals president Stan Kasten wants it. The entrance from Half Street filters perfectly into that area, making it popular.

 Security heavy: You would think the Secret Service would have this stuff down, but there were some issues at the media entrance. Reporters had to turn their laptops on, leave them outside and walk through a metal detector, then come back outside, pick up their laptops and come back in. Several people had to do it twice because the guards couldn’t remember whether they had been scanned already.

 Nos amours: Last night’s game was particularly meaningful for the six remaining Nationals employees who worked for the team in Montreal. Clubhouse manager Mike Wallace, media relations director John Dever, assistant trainer Mike McGowan, scouting director Dana Brown, assistant scouting director Brian Parker and traveling secretary Rob McDonald all posed for a photo on the field at their new home.

 Hope it fits: Broadcaster Don Sutton was thrilled to serve as emcee for the pregame ceremony, but the Hall of Fame right-hander was a bit nervous about his attire. Sutton rented a tux for the event, but he hadn’t had a chance to try it on before last night. I hope it fits, he said.

 QB in the house: Who was that familiar-looking guy in a burgundy jacket posing for photos on the field during batting practice? Why none other than Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell, who seemed pretty anonymous among the crowd.

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