|Nationals put finishing touches on new stadium, opening-day lineup|
|Written by Admin|
|Saturday, 29 March 2008 14:27|
Workers mowed the infield and outfield grass at Nationals Park, getting that curly ``W'' in center field just right, before the Washington Nationals hosted the Baltimore Orioles in an exhibition game that also served as a dress rehearsal Saturday night.
There were wires being tucked away, pillars near an entrance being painted blue and other last-minute fixes. And, in the distance beyond left field, there was the view of the Capitol Building dome, no adjustments necessary.
``It's a new feel. It makes us a little bit more excited to come here every day, and it gives us a sense of pride,'' third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said, none too upset to have left behind creaky, leaky RFK Stadium. ``It's going to be tough to beat us here.''
The day before the Nationals play the first regular-season major league game at their $600 million-plus new home, hosting the Atlanta Braves on Sunday night, Washington manager Manny Acta discussed the last two up-for-grabs spots in his starting nine.
Nick Johnson, who missed 2007 with a broken right leg, got the nod over Dmitri Young at first base, while Ronnie Belliard beat out Felipe Lopez at second.
``I'll be fired up. It's going to be pretty cool,'' Johnson said, thinking about Sunday. ``I missed a full year. A lot of work to get back. A lot of ups and downs. To be back on the field, it's a cool thing. Real cool.''
Lopez and Young said all the right things Saturday.
Neither was pleased to hear the news from Acta - delivered in 1-on-1 meetings after a team workout Friday night - but both appeared to have taken the demotions as well as possible.
``Naturally, not happy,'' Young said when asked for his reaction. ``But at the same time, I'm happy for Nick, being able to come back from his injury. He's worked his tail off to get back.''
Young hit .320 last season, when he was an All-Star and earned NL comeback player of the year honors. But Johnson did everything he needed to during spring training to prove to the Nationals that he was capable of playing the way he did in 2006, when he produced career bests of a .290 batting average, 46 doubles, 23 homers, 77 RBIs and 110 walks.
``Basically we feel that Nick Johnson is back to where he was two years ago,'' Acta said. ``We saw it in camp. And we went with it.''
The public address announcer began telling Saturday's crowd about the Nationals' defensive alignment by noting, ``At first base, No. 24, Nick Johnson.''
Johnson made a nice dig in the dirt for an unassisted out on Luke Scott's grounder in the first inning. And then, batting cleanup, Johnson delivered an RBI single in the bottom of the inning.
``It's the fact that before Dmitri Young, there was Nick Johnson here. Dmitri got his break last year because Nick was hurt,'' Acta said. ``Nick is back and he's a big part of our offense, a big part of our team. And so is Dmitri Young. It's just, you can't have two first basemen in one game.''
Well, actually, both were in the starting lineup Saturday against the AL's Orioles - the teams used designated hitters. Young was Washington's DH, and he struck out in two of his first three plate appearances.
But that, and other details of the game, were not as important to the Nationals and their fans as the test run.
``Well, we did it, huh?'' team owner Mark Lerner said as players warmed up before the game.
Said club president Stan Kasten: ``I don't have any doubts any more about the park. It's going to play just fine. It's going to service our customers just fine. I know we're going to learn some things and have to improve some things and change some things in time, both for tomorrow and again in time for our first homestand. But we know, big-picture-wise, it turned out spectacular.''
The biggest picture is provided, of course, by the giant video board in right-center, measuring about 4,500 square feet (compared with less than 1,400 at RFK).
Ask anyone associated with the Nationals what stands out about the new place, and it's that.
``That's going to be the seller here,'' center fielder Lastings Milledge said. ``Other than watching us play.''
Milledge is among the upgrades on the field for the Nationals, who will send out left-hander Odalis Perez as their starter against Atlanta's Tim Hudson (4-0 with a 0.60 ERA against Washington in 2007).
Perez will throw the first official pitch in Nationals Park history, not long after President Bush throws out the first ceremonial pitch, part of plenty of pomp and circumstance planned for Sunday.
``All the excitement and the pregame stuff - that'll take about as long as the game takes,'' Zimmerman said. ``It'll be a whole lot of stuff to lead up to just another baseball game. That's the way we need to look at it.''