- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2012

The wind swirled through Nationals Park, past the red carpet stretching from dugout to Kentucky bluegrass mowed in a diamond pattern. Fireworks popped and, microphone in hand, James Brown bellowed the name of everyone from the assistant clubhouse manager to Screech, the Washington Nationals’ hyperactive, eaglelike mascot.

Tyler Clippard, who offered Sean Burnett advice on swinging a new driver in the clubhouse earlier Thursday, wasn’t just the Nationals’ setup man. As the bespectacled right-hander strode down the red carpet, Brown boomed to the half-full stands that he was the “best setup man in the game.”

Optimism covered the Nationals’ home opener against the Cincinnati Reds like with the heavy smell of fries and eye-watering smoke from the Jammin’ Island Outpost’s grill beyond center field. That’s what happens with left-hander Gio Gonzalez, acquired during the offseason and given a $42 million contract extension, on the mound, ace Stephen Strasburg toting a healthy right elbow and a manager who swears his team will contend in the National League East.

Since starting play in Washington in 2005, the Nationals have never finished better than third in their division or won more than 81 games.

“We have an opportunity to play with the big boys,” manager Davey Johnson said before the Nationals’ 3-2 win in 10 innings, “to play at a higher level.”

The unending wind off the river contorted a huge American flag hung from two D.C. fire department ladder trucks outside the stadium, bent the green-leafed cherry trees in left field - a week earlier they were covered in pink - and sucked the sound from the Quantico Marine Corps Band.

Also absent were injured players Michael Morse and Drew Storen and Chien-Ming Wang. They are part of the quiet question that hung over the afternoon, one of the team’s three self-described openers at Nationals Park including Friday’s opening night and kids’ opening day April 22. Can the team stay healthy?

General manager Mike Rizzo, in a suit and tie like other front office types, announced that Morse would miss at least six weeks after he reinjured a right lat strain during a rehabilitation game with Single-A Hagerstown.

Storen’s right arm that fired 95 mph fastballs last season hung in a blue sling after surgery Wednesday to remove a bone chip.

Wang remains at the Nationals’ complex in Viera, Fla., healing a strained hamstring.

But the Nationals’ health concerns didn’t seep into the concourses Thursday, jammed like the Beltway at rush hour from the sellout crowd of 40,907.

The announcer urged them to “ignite your Natitude.” That’s the team’s marketing slogan this season, supposedly reflecting the organization’s changed attitude.

The team store was elbow-to-elbow, where $315 bought you a replica of Strasburg’s No. 37 jersey or, for the less financially adventurous, there were stacks of $30 caps and strings of blue “sport beads” and women’s T-shirts reading “Talent Scout.”

Clouds rolled past, as Cholula hot sauce pumped onto plates of nachos and fans wearing T-shirts clutched chilled aluminum bottles of beer. No one seemed to mind the 56 degree temperature at Gonzalez’s first pitch, a 94 mph strike.

At the Red Porch, a 35-minute wait would get you a table. No one paid much attention to the game. Eyes rolled to the $59 StrasBurger atop the menu. A limited number of the hyped 8-pound burgers, including three kinds of ground beef, were available.

A reporter from WUSA-TV (Channel 9) waited to eat one for a story and wondered if she could make it through a pound.

Near the center field gate, two vendors chased opening-day pennants knocked from their stands by the wind. Every 30 or so seconds, they let out half-hearted cries of “programs.” They had no business.

The wind continued as the sun fell and the fans, some wearing Mets, White Sox and Red Sox caps, rose. In the 10th inning, Ryan Zimmerman streaked home after a wild pitch and the game was over. Streaks of blue empty seats disappeared as fans jumped up and down and waved arms.

Baseball was back.



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