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Reeling Nats out at home, too


WASHINGTON -- A trip home, perfect Opening Day weather and a visit from the country's vice president couldn't shake the Washington Nationals out of their early-season funk.

Stymied by New York Mets rookie Brian Bannister's second consecutive strong performance, the Nationals dropped their home opener, 7-1, yesterday and fell to 2-6 to start the season.

"You have to give [Bannister] credit for some of it. He's responsible for it," Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. "But a lot of it falls on our shoulders. We're just not swinging the bats very well."

The Nationals, who had the league's worst batting average in 2005, managed just three hits against Bannister, who was making his second big league start.

In his April 5 debut, Bannister threw no-hit ball against the Nationals for 5 1/3 innings, before eventually leaving with a six-inning no-decision.

Yesterday Bannister picked up his first major league win by throwing strikes with four different pitches that ranged from 69 to 90 mph. He didn't walk anyone and struck out one in seven befuddling innings. His only mistake was a seventh-inning bases-empty homer by Alfonso Soriano.

"My game is simple. I don't try and overpower guys. ... " said Bannister, 25, who is the son of former big league pitcher Floyd Bannister. "I still have a lot of work to do."

Overall, the Nationals have just five hits in 13 innings against Bannister, whose best pitch was a quick-moving, 86-mph cut-fastball.

"Everyone says, 'They are only 86, 87,'" said Nationals catcher Brian Schneider. "Yeah, but they got pretty good movement on them. So it's a little different."

Washington's offense mirrored the flatness of the announced crowd of 40,530 - about 6,000 short of a sellout. The fans roared for Robinson during pre-game introductions and when Soriano hit his first RFK homer. There was a mixed response when U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney bounced the ceremonial first pitch to Schneider.

Primarily, though, the Opening Day crowd was subdued.

"It didn't bother [the Mets]," Robinson said, adding: "[The fans] didn't have anything to get rowdy about."

The Mets broke a scoreless tie in the fourth on an RBI double by David Wright and a Cliff Floyd sacrifice fly. They added two in the next inning on a Jose Reyes RBI single and a Paul Lo Duca RBI double.

Those were the only runs scored against Nationals starter Ramon Ortiz (0-2) in six innings pitched, but they'd suffice.

"[Ortiz] gave up the first two and it was almost like we were out of the ballgame the way our offense is going," Robinson said.

Reyes added a run-scoring triple in the seventh and Carlos Beltran smashed a two-run homer in the ninth that bounced off the upper-deck facing in right.

The Nationals attempted a comeback in the bottom of the ninth when Mets closer Billy Wagner walked the bases loaded, but Ryan Zimmerman struck out on three pitches to end the afternoon.

The Nationals have scored three runs or fewer in half of their games.

"You never want to put on that kind of display," Schneider said.

At least the contest remained cordial between the National League East rivals. Last week, their three-game series at Shea Stadium turned ugly in the finale when Nationals slugger Jose Guillen threatened Mets ace Pedro Martinez after Martinez plunked him for the second time.

Robinson and Nationals reliever Felix Hernandez were later ejected - and eventually suspended - after Hernandez hit Lo Duca with a pitch.

Yesterday's umpiring crew informed Robinson and Mets manager Willie Randolph that Major League Baseball has stressed that the sides must be closely monitored. Therefore, each team has been warned for the season, and the next beanball incident between the two likely will result in immediate ejections.

"It's a little tough, but you just hope they do use good judgment," Robinson said. "And the crew has indicated that they are not just going to have a hair-trigger if something happens out there, They are going to allow us to play the game. But they are not going to let things get out of hand."

Martinez, incidentally, pitches against the Nats tonight at 7:05.

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