Baseball is back in the nation’s capital for the first time in nearly 34 years.
It almost didn’t happen for the former Montreal Expos after an offseason that featured plenty of maneuvering between baseball and Washington city officials before the move finally became permanent. It returned the sport to the capital for the first time since the Senators left after the 1971 season
Before playing in its new home, the Nationals open with a nine-game road trip. Traveling is nothing new for the club, which was forced to play home games in Puerto Rico the last two seasons.
“Just having a home is a big thing, especially with the energy coming with the new city,” Washington starter Zach Day said.
Although they may seem like an expansion team, the Nationals had back-to-back 83-win seasons as the Expos before last year’s 67-95 campaign. Washington is looking to return to its previous level of modest success after a few upgrades to its roster.
Washington boosted its pitching staff by adding veteran right-hander Esteban Loiaza, who won 21 games two seasons ago with the Chicago White Sox. Offensively, the Nationals brought in shortstop Cristian Guzman from Minnesota and Jose Guillen, who had a career-high 104 RBI for Anaheim last season.
“We are going to open a lot of eyes,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “I know our division knows how we are and knows we (can) play. I think we will open some eyes around the league, (especially those) who are not familiar with us.”
One constant is starter Livan Hernandez, who is set to make his fifth career opening-day start. The veteran right-hander has logged over 200 innings for five straight seasons.
“He has been there for us the last couple of years,” Schneider said. “He is a workhorse. There’s nobody else we would rather have than him.”
Philadelphia is facing reduced expectations after many experts predicted a division title last season. The Phillies floundered instead, hovering around the .500 mark for most of the campaign and forcing beleaguered general manager Ed Wade to make some changes.
The biggest change is new manager Charlie Manuel, who replaces the volatile Larry Bowa—fired before the finale last year. Manuel has an excellent relationship with slugger Jim Thome from their days with Cleveland and is expected to bring a looser approach to the clubhouse.
“The first thing you say is if the players can police the clubhouse, that’d be great,” Manuel said. “At the same time, I know when to cut in when things are getting out of hand. There’s a difference between having fun and goofing off.”
One reason for the lack of optimism is that Philadelphia lost starters Kevin Millwood and Eric Milton from a staff that struggled in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park. Other teams in the division added pitchers such as Pedro Martinez, Tim Hudson and Al Leiter.
The Phillies will replace Millwood and Milton—who combined for 23 wins— in the rotation with Jon Lieber and rookie Gavin Floyd. Lieber went 14-8 with a 4.33 ERA with the New York Yankees last season and will make his sixth Opening Day start.
“It’s an honor, but it’s just not a goal,” Lieber said. “Every pitcher on this staff is deserving of it. It just happens to be me.”
Offensively, Philadelphia is hoping that veteran center fielder Kenny Lofton will provide some help near the top of the order. Lofton, battling a hamstring problem this spring, batted .275 with 51 runs in part-time duty for the Yankees last season.
Burrell has seen his numbers drop after a breakout year in 2002 in which he had 37 homers and 116 RBIs. He batted a career-low .209 two seasons ago before managing to bat only .257 last season with 24 homers and 84 RBIs.
2004 STANDINGS: Nationals (as Expos) - 5th place, 29 GB, NL East. Phillies - 2nd place, 10 GB, NL East.
NATIONALS PROBABLE STARTER: Hernandez (11-15, 3.60 ERA). The Cuban right-hander is 8-5 lifetime with a 2.76 ERA in 18 career starts against the Phillies. He went 1-2 with a 3.00 ERA in three starts against Philadelphia last season, dropping his lone appearance at Citizens Bank Park. Hernandez went 2-2 with a 2.18 ERA in six starts in the spring.
PHILLIES PROBABLE STARTER: Lieber (14-8, 4.33 ERA). The right-hander pitched well for the Yankees down the stretch, going 5-0 with a 3.12 ERA over his final six regular-season starts and 1-1 with a 3.43 ERA in three postseason starts. Lieber went 1-0 with a 4.09 ERA in five spring starts.
2004 OFFENSIVE LEADERS: Nationals - Jose Vidro, .294 avg.; Brad Wilkerson, 32 HRs, 112 runs; Endy Chavez, 32 SBs. Phillies - Bobby Abreu, .301 avg.; 105 RBIs and 40 SBs. Jim Thome 42 HRs and 105 RBIs, Jimmy Rollins, 119 runs.
2004 SEASON SERIES: Phillies, 12-7.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Nationals - 1B Nick Johnson served as the leadoff hitter over the last five games and could be the first Nationals batter. … Washington managed only 14 homers in the spring. … RHP Chad Cordero is likely to serve as closer after compiling three saves and a 1.80 ERA in 9 2/3 innings in the spring. Phillies - Manuel owns a career managerial record of 411-220, winning AL Central Division titles with Cleveland in 2000 and 2001. … 1B Thome returned to action on Wednesday after missing a week due to back problems. … LF Burrell had a solid spring, finishing with a team-high 20 RBIS.
2004 ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Nationals - 32-50 on the road; Phillies - 42-39 at home.
INJURIES: - RHP Tony Armas Jr, 15-day DL (groin), RHP Claudio Vargas (elbow), 15-day DL, OF Alex Escobar (quadriceps), 15-day DL, IF Henry Mateo (shoulder), 15-day DL, RHP Francis Beltran (elbow), 60-day DL. Phillies - RHP Vicente Padilla (triceps), 15-day DL.