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Despite defeat, a day for fans to long cherish

It would have been a glorious moment, a story that would have been handed down for generations of Washington baseball fans. Years from now, a grandfather would be telling his grandson about the day Washington had a major league baseball team again for the first time in 34 years when the Nationals took the field against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on April 4, 2005, and how Terrmel Sledge became the greatest baseball hero in the city since Ted Williams managed the Senators. "Let me tell you about the time those old Nats, in their first game ever, came back from being down 7-4 against the Phillies when a minor league outfielder who had persevered and eventually won a major league job hit a three-run home run on a day he wasn't even supposed to be in the game," the grandfather would say. "His name was Terrmel Sledge, and he took his place with the famous Sledges in history - Sister Sledge and Percy Sledge among them, the day that the Washington Nationals won their first game." Alas, that story will never be told unless someone weaves a fairy tale. The mighty Sledgehammer, with the bases loaded yesterday in the seventh inning, worked a 3-0 count into 3-2 and then proceeded to do a very Senators-like thing. He grounded to second for the inning-ending double play. But, hey, at least it was a Washington inning-ending double play. It wasn't a Baltimore inning-ending double play to feel despondent about, or an inning-ending double play for some other team that you might be connected to in one form or another. No, this was a disappointment that Washington baseball fans could take to heart, and even on a day when the Nationals lost 8-4, the groundouts and the runners left on base and the missed opportunities all still had a sweet taste to them. Heck, they never will appreciate that in Philly, where the fans were booing Bobby Abreu on Opening Day for popping out in the sixth inning with the bases loaded even though their team was leading 7-3. Asked about his at-bat - and the lost opportunity for Sledge fame - Sledge said, "I was all geeked up." It was a big picture day and not one to harp on the details. But if you want to get all geeky about it, sure there are some concerns about this team. The lineup continued its offensive struggles from spring training - 13 hits and just four runs to show for it. After six weeks of spring training, they still can't figure out who will lead off (manager Frank Robinson didn't have Brad Wilkerson lead off or play center field all spring, and he did both yesterday). They run the bases like a senior citizen softball team (they ran themselves right out of a potential big inning when Nick Johnson barely made it to second for a double and then Vinny Castilla got thrown out trying to reach second when Phillies left fielder Pat Burrell bobbled the ball). And their stud, Livan Hernandez, got lit up by 37-year-old Kenny Lofton for a three-run home run when the Nationals were down just 3-1. None of these is an encouraging sign. But it was Washington baseball, and for now, that is enough. Robinson said all the hype about baseball's return to Washington ended for him when the game began. "When the game starts, it is just about being successful about what you are doing," he said. But the hype can continue now that the game is over and carry on to the second game in Nationals history tomorrow in Philadelphia and all the way to the home opener April14 against Arizona and beyond. "Winning on the 14th would be a nice accomplishment, but we would like to win some of these games on the road and give something for fans to be excited about," Robinson said. Washington will be pretty "geeked" up come April 14, though a few wins wouldn't hurt. But like Mama said, the next best thing to playing and winning is playing and losing, and for now, just playing is just fine. Terrmel may get his chance for Sledge fame at that RFK opener. As it was, he still made history yesterday when he hit the Nationals' first home run, a two-run shot in the sixth inning that appeared to put Washington back in the game by closing the Phillies lead to 7-3. That ball will be going to the Baseball Hall of Fame to mark the moment. "It's special to have something in the Hall of Fame," Sledge said. If he had hit a home run in that seventh inning, they would have held a parade for the ball down Pennsylvania Avenue.

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