- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

MIAMI | Each spring, unbridled optimism runs through 30 major league cities like an epidemic. Fans and players alike talk only of what could be like giddy lovesick teenagers. It's part of the reason baseball, for so long, has been romanticized by pundits turned poets.

Even the Washington Nationals, who had pitchers and catchers report to Florida on Valentine's Day after a 59-win season and spent the first two weeks of spring training managing a broiling scandal in the Dominican Republic, could break camp with players saying there's something special going on.

And there still could be. But the quickest way to kill the Nationals' spring optimism was to keep them in Florida on Opening Day and match them with a team that dominated them last year and still knows how to beat them.

Monday's season-opening 12-6 loss to the Florida Marlins looked like so many of the Nationals' games against their division rival last year. Starter John Lannan, who never had faced the Marlins, gave up doubles and home runs on the same pitches the Marlins smacked off other Washington pitchers last year. Four of the Nationals' first six hitters struck out against Florida starter Ricky Nolasco.

“I'm not glad that we lost, but I'm glad we lost the way we lost,” left fielder Adam Dunn said. “Now everybody will focus back on, 'Opening Day's over with. Now let's concentrate on winning a series.' You'll see a different team tomorrow.”

Ryan Zimmerman's throwing error gave an extra out to the bottom of the Marlins' lineup, and Hanley Ramirez made Washington regret it with a sixth-inning grand slam. Lastings Milledge grounded out on his first pitch as the leadoff hitter and later saw a ball drop just beyond his diving attempt for one of the game's most deflating blows.

Basically everything about the Nationals' loss went like it could have been the final 2008 home game they never played against the Marlins because of a rainout.

Dunn, the Nationals' marquee acquisition of the offseason, made up for misplaying a first-inning RBI double by launching a three-run homer in the sixth inning and driving in four runs. But he was overshadowed by a player the Nationals traded away.

Emilio Bonifacio, who came to Florida in the November trade for pitcher Scott Olsen and outfielder Josh Willingham, began his time in Florida with the same kind of incendiary jolt he gave to Washington the first few days of August last year. Three times he singled and stole a base. He scored on all of those base hits. By the end of the third inning, he had helped the Marlins take a 6-0 lead when he led off with a single, later stole third and scored on a double by Ramirez. Florida punctuated the inning with a two-run homer from Jorge Cantu.

But after the Nationals had scored two runs in the fourth, Bonifacio delivered his signature moment in the bottom of the inning.

With Lannan out of the game and Julian Tavarez already on the mound in a mop-up role, Bonifacio lashed a 3-2 pitch to center field, forcing Milledge to retreat from his spot in shallow center. The ball landed on the warning track just beyond Milledge's diving arms, and Bonifacio opened up his sprinter's stride to wheel around third and slide into home well before Jesus Flores' tag attempt.

“He's the fastest guy I've ever seen in my life,” Ramirez said. “I was, but I'm getting old now. I give him the trophy.”

Bonifacio jumped to his feet, pumped his fist and returned to the Florida dugout before the 34,323 in attendance roared for a curtain call. It was the first Opening Day inside-the-park homer since Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox hit one against the Detroit Tigers on April 10, 1968.

“I was playing him shallow. That's the report [on him],” Milledge said. “He kind of got a hold of one, and I couldn't make a play on it. I did the best I could to get the ball in. I thought he was fast, but I didn't know he was that fast to get inside the park. I thought I got the ball in pretty quick, and [second baseman Ronnie Belliard] made a good [relay] throw. I was kind of amazed by his speed.”

The blow put the Marlins up 8-2, and whatever hope Dunn's homer gave the Nationals was drained by Zimmerman's sixth-inning throwing error, which put pinch hitter Brett Carroll on second and turned over Florida's lineup with no out.

Bonifacio singled, John Baker walked and Ramirez blasted Steven Shell's curveball to left, putting Florida up 12-5 and Washington down for the day, hoping it could recapture its spring optimism in the season's second game.

“It's only one game. I won't call my team sloppy after one game,” manager Manny Acta said. “It's a game played by human beings.”


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