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Baseball teams are endowed to begin seasons with certain inalienable rights: to hang bunting from the railings, to introduce everyone from clubhouse attendance to cleanup hitters, the latter with a volley of fireworks worthy of a national holiday, to invite dignitaries to throw out the first pitch, and in the case of the Nationals, to get the leader of the free world to drive halfway across town, lob a pitch high and outside and chuckle about it later.
Nowhere in that manifesto is a guarantee that Game 1 of a new season will do anything to carry forward the optimism each team takes out of spring training. Once the festivities are over, it's just one baseball game out of 162, and the normal rules apply.
When the Philadelphia Phillies, winners of the last two National League titles, bring an improved lineup and a former Cy Young winner to town, that usually means trouble. And the Nationals' 11-1 loss to the Phillies on Monday afternoon did nothing to break from the script.
Jim Riggleman talks with the media about the Nats 11-1 loss to the Phillies
Roy Halladay leafed through 27 batters in just 88 pitches, striking out nine and allowing only three hits after the first two innings. The Phillies' muscular lineup, further strengthened by the addition of third baseman Placido Polanco, seized on one mistake by Nationals starter John Lannan in the fourth inning, and the Phillies padded their lead off the Nationals' long relievers, turning a comfortable lead into a gaping one with the help of nine walks (one intentional) by Nationals pitchers.
It closely mirrored the Nationals' 12-6 Opening Day loss to the Marlins last year, and put Washington in a hole to start the season. On a day highlighted by President Obama throwing the ceremonial first pitch 100 years after the tradition began in Washington, the Nationals had little else to celebrate.
"They had one big inning where they kind of put everything out of reach for us," right fielder Willie Harris said. "It kind of took the air out of us a little bit. ... One game lost doesn't mean anything. We've just got to go out and continue to play hard, and play right."
Lannan was solid for the game's first three innings, though he wasn't throwing as many strikes as he does when he's pitching well. In the fourth, though, a leadoff walk to Chase Utley began a Phillies rally that would quickly seal the game.
With Utley on first, Lannan's next pitch was a hanging 78-mph slider to first baseman Ryan Howard. Howard met the pitch with a blast so forceful, both he and Lannan knew they had plenty of time to turn and watch it sail into the upper deck. The Phillies took a 2-1 lead on the homer, and would add three more runs before the end of the inning.
"That leadoff walk to Utley and that breaking ball to Howard really set things off for them," Lannan said. "Philly's a tough team to stop once they get their momentum, and their momentum kept on going. I couldn't stop it."
Lannan had a chance to halt the rally with Halladay at the plate, but when he charged a swinging bunt in front of the plate, he tried to shovel the ball with his glove to home plate and retire Raul Ibanez, rather than throwing to first base. It would have kept a run off the board, and might have let Lannan stay in the game longer.
The inning might have been the flash point in the game, but it wasn't the only problem. Not with Halladay cruising through the Nationals' lineup and a pair of relievers (Miguel Batista and Jason Bergmann) giving up six runs, four hits and four walks - including Polanco's grand slam on the second pitch Bergmann threw after replacing Batista. Washington had nine hits, but only one run; it went 2-for-15 with runners in scoring position and left nine men on base.
The Nationals will be back at it on Wednesday, trying to get their first win of the year after a day off with new acquisition Jason Marquis on the mound. The opener was just one game out of 162, but it left the Nationals trying to find the spark for their season again.
"It's not at all what I expected," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We've got way more than (how) we played today."