- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Two important questions hung in the chilly spring air Monday afternoon at Nationals Park.

Who would throw out the first pitch in the Washington Nationals' home opener against the Philadelphia Phillies? For sure it would not be President Obama, who declined the invitation. His replacement was a closely guarded secret until members of the military's five branches came out and delivered their tosses to manager Manny Acta and four of his players.

But then the larger question: When would the Nationals finally win? Losers of their first six games, they were major league baseball's only winless team.

That answer remains elusive because the Nationals remain winless, now 0-7, although not without a fight against the 2008 World Series champions. In the seventh inning of a tie game, Ryan Howard hit a three-run homer off reliever Saul Rivera, and Raul Ibanez followed with a solo home run to spark the Phillies' 9-8 victory before an announced crowd of 40,386. The Nationals committed three errors.

With Washington trailing 9-6 in the ninth, Ryan Zimmerman hit a two-run homer off relief ace Brad Lidge to make it a one-run game. But Lidge retired the next three hitters.

“We just need to hold opponents to under six, seven, eight runs,” Acta said, which lately has been harder than it sounds.

To the Phillies' organization and fans, the game seemed almost incidental. Longtime team broadcaster Harry Kalas, an institution and beloved figure in and around Philadelphia, collapsed in a television booth at about 12:30 p.m., just more than 2 1/2 hours before the first pitch. He was rushed to George Washington University Medical Center, where he died less than an hour later. The cause of death was not immediately known.

Kalas, 73, worked for the Phillies since 1971 but lent his distinctively slow, velvety delivery to other sports and commercials and was known nationwide.

“Major League Baseball has lost one of the great voices of our generation,” commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement.

Phillies fans were a presence at the game, although it was hard to say how many responded to the invitation to attend extended by Nationals president Stan Kasten last week on two Philadelphia radio stations. Michael and Staci Binder, a couple from northeast Philadelphia decked out in team gear and carrying a replica of the world championship banner, bought their tickets long before Kasten went on the air.

“We just want to see our boys,” Staci Binder said.

Michael Binder noted that he spent “400 or 500 bucks” on apparel and other Phillies-related stuff after the World Series.

“Most of Philly did that,” he said.

During the pregame ceremony, the Nationals' starters ran through the gate in center field and onto the field when they were introduced - like a football team.

“All we need are some cheerleaders and a banner to break through,” slugger Adam Dunn wryly noted beforehand.

Dunn, who hit a two-run homer in the seventh that cut the deficit to two, did not greet the home opener with the anticipation anyone might expect.

“All this hoopla, all these people that you'll never see again are always here on Opening Day,” said Dunn, who signed with the Nationals as a free agent and is known for his candor as well as his long-ball prowess. “It's great. It's a lot of fun for the fans, but Opening Day is a huge hassle sometimes.”

Nationals fans also were having their patience tested - by their team's slow start after last year's major league high 102 losses. Addressing the winless record, Mike Feichter, who drove to the District from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, with a friend, said, “I'm not happy with it, but it is what it is. They have more talent than last year. They have to be better. They can't be any worse.”

Karen Hibbitt, a season-ticket holder from Arlington, described the Nationals as “kind of pathetic.” But she did so with a smile and said “it's great to have them in the city.” Citing the Washington Capitals, who have morphed from one of the NHL's worst teams into one of the best, she said, “I'm vaguely hopeful, seeing what's happened to the Caps.”

After Patti Austin sang the national anthem and the ceremonial first pitches were thrown, Nationals starter Daniel Cabrera and his teammates raced onto the field. Then there was a second moment of silence - this time for Kalas.

“I love you, Harry!” a voice rang out.

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