WASHINGTON (AP)—Ryan Zimmerman raised a fist when he rounded first, then tossed away his helmet as he approached the plate and the mass of teammates waiting to celebrate his game-ending homer.
The kid sure knows how to throw a housewarming party.
Zimmerman’s tiebreaking solo shot with two outs in the ninth inning Sunday night gave the Washington Nationals a 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves in the first regular-season game at $611 million Nationals Park.
“You can’t really write up a script better than that,” Zimmerman said. “It turned out perfect.”
Braves pitchers had retired 24 consecutive Nationals batters before Zimmerman came through with the hosts’ fourth hit of the game—and first since the first inning. It came on a 1-0 sinker from Peter Moylan (0-1).
“He’s talented, and he’s mature beyond his age,” Washington manager Manny Acta said. “And he just does it. He’s special.”
With the dome of the U.S. Capitol lit up against the black night sky beyond left field, and the Washington Monument visible from patches of the upper deck, the new stadium provided a picturesque setting for the sort of late-game magic Zimmerman is becoming accustomed to.
Already the face of the franchise after two full seasons, he has four game-ending homers. And this one just happened to land in a section of seats behind a “Welcome Home” sign on the green-padded wall.
“It’s nice to be that guy that they want up there,” he said. “You take pride in that.”
He certainly showed zero jitters up at the plate. A few hours earlier, meeting President Bush? Now that’s a different story.
“I was nervous at first,” Zimmerman said. “I didn’t know what to say to him.”
Unlike Zimmerman, Bush drew a fugue of cheers and jeers when he came out to throw the ceremonial first pitch to Acta. It was part of a prelude of pomp and circumstance that was clearly topped by how the evening ended.
All in all, it sent the paid crowd of 39,389 heading away with even more to smile about than the gleaming white-stone-and-glass ballpark. The Nationals had their first victory in a season opener in four tries since moving to the U.S. capital from Montreal.
Zimmerman was larger than life as he rounded the bases, then came out of the dugout for a curtain call—it all was shown on the 4,500-plus square foot high-definition video board above right-center, the most immediately noticeable perk of the new digs. It’s about three times larger than the scoreboard at creaky, leaky RFK, a remnant from the 1960s that was the Nationals’ home from 2005-07.
“We’ve waited for so long for a place that can be our own,” Zimmerman said. “There are just too many people on this team that are tired of being mediocre.”
Even the Braves were impressed by the place.
Chipper Jones, whose homer off Perez in the fourth landed in almost the same spot as Zimmerman’s drive, called the park “a gem.” Braves manager Bobby Cox thought it was “beautiful.”
They didn’t feel quite the same about the result, of course.
The Nationals were one out from the victory, ahead 2-1 in the ninth. But Rauch was pressed into closing duty because Chad Cordero has right shoulder tendinitis, and the tying run scored on a passed ball charged to Paul Lo Duca, signed during the offseason as a free agent.
It was a couple of holdovers who drove in Washington’s runs, both in the first inning. Johnson, who missed all of 2007 with a broken leg, provided an RBI double, sliding into second as if he’d never been away. Johnson then slid again, as if for emphasis, when he scored on Austin Kearns’ single.
After that, Hudson was perfect. He retired his last 19 batters, departing after allowing three hits over seven innings.
Perhaps surprisingly, Perez was Hudson’s equal. A left-hander signed in mid-February to a minor league deal, Perez gave up one run in five innings.
The Braves boasted their own, more modest, debut Sunday: alternate road uniforms. The navy blue caps with a white “A,” and navy jerseys with a white, script “Atlanta” on the chest represent the first change to the team’s away getup since 1987.
Fans arrived as early as 6 a.m. to buy $5 upper-deck tickets, and there were no apparent transportation problems, with about 50 buses lined up for the free, 10-minute shuttle service from parking lots at RFK.
To a man, Nationals players have said they haven’t had time to learn all of the quirks of their new digs, yet right fielder Kearns contributed a nice play in the second inning, turning Brian McCann’s single into an out at second. Kearns perfectly played the carom off the bullpen wall, turned and made a throw to second baseman Ronnie Belliard, who relayed the ball to shortstop Cristian Guzman, who tagged out McCann.
The next inning, the Braves collected their second hit of the season—and followed it up with their second baserunning gaffe of the season. This time, it was Kelly Johnson who singled to center, then was caught stealing.
What everyone will remember, though, is Zimmerman’s homer.
“The kid’s incredible,” Rauch said.
The Nationals put LF Elijah Dukes (right hamstring) on the DL after the game. … After years of wearing “C. Jones” on the back of his Braves jersey— because Andruw Jones, now with the Dodgers, was a teammate—Chipper Jones was identified Sunday simply as “Jones.”