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Opening night is a hit

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- With the sellout crowd, crisp night air and a dramatic walk-off home run, last night's 3-2 victory by the Washington Nationals over the Atlanta Braves looked and felt like the postseason.

It was, in fact, the domestic opener for a new major league baseball season and the first regular-season game at 41,888-seat Nationals Park.

But forgive the Nationals for dreaming. When Ryan Zimmerman belted a 1-0 pitch into the left-center-field stands with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, the ensuing celebration at home plate looked as if Washington had won the pennant.

"You couldn't have written a script like that," Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner said.

President Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch, hearing plenty of boos along with applause when introduced. Wearing a red Nationals warm-up jacket, Bush threw a high pitch to Nationals manager Manny Acta, who said his wife had told him, "Don't drop the ball." He didn't.

"Washington, let's play ball!" bellowed Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, who had once ardently opposed the plan to use city funds to build the new park.

The stadium's first regular-season pitch from Odalis Perez, signed by the Nationals in February, was fouled back by Kelly Johnson, who struck out. Washington leadoff hitter Cristian Guzman got the first hit, a single, and scored the first run. Atlanta's Chipper Jones hit the stadium's first home run, a solo shot in the fourth inning.

But the stadium had to share its big night with Zimmerman.

The Braves tied the game at 2 in the ninth when Nats catcher Paul Lo Duca's passed ball allowed pinch runner Martin Prado to score with two outs.

It all set up Zimmerman's shot, the first Nationals home run in the new park. He hit a fastball from reliever Peter Moylan.

"To have the president out here with all the ceremonies and activities before the game was perfect," Zimmerman said. "And we got to see a great ballgame, and you can't write a script any better than that to end the game. It turned out perfect."

Among those watching was commissioner Bud Selig, who said he was delighted to see Washington with its own team and glittering new park. "Wish it had happened sooner. There were parts of the journey that were painful," he said.

Selig said the city deserved to host an All-Star Game and "we'll just have to figure that out."

The game came at an exhilarating time for an organization in the midst of reinventing itself. In the past few years, the former Montreal Expos have overhauled their minor league system and cut loose such prominent veterans as Livan Hernandez, Jose Guillen, Brad Wilkerson, Jose Vidro and Brian Schneider. The club signed young pitchers from the Dominican Republic and elsewhere with an eye on 2009 and beyond. Only five players remain from the Expos team that moved here in 2005. The most senior player, pitcher Luis Ayala, has been with the club for five years.

"We've totally rebuilt our organization," said pitcher Jason Bergmann, 26, who started Saturday night's exhibition against the Orioles at the new park.

The Nationals were 122-121 at RFK Stadium, their home for three years while the new park was being constructed on the Anacostia River waterfront.

"I don't want to use the word hate, but [players] disliked the fact that some balls could have gone out of the ballpark at RFK and didn't go," Acta said.

The power alleys at the new stadium are 377 and 370 feet, respectively, from home plate. At RFK, they were listed at 380 - but players and a Major League Baseball consultant said they might have been farther.

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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