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Nationals open new stadium by beating Braves 3-2 on Zimmerman’s homer in 9th, BBN

March 31, 2008 GMT
Washington Nationals Ryan Zimmerman, center, is met by his teammates after his solo home run gave the Nationals a 3-2 victory in the bottom of the ninth inning during the Major League Baseball home opener for the Washington Nationals against the Atlanta Braves in the Nationals' new ballpark Sunday, March 30, 2008 in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Washington Nationals Ryan Zimmerman, center, is met by his teammates after his solo home run gave the Nationals a 3-2 victory in the bottom of the ninth inning during the Major League Baseball home opener for the Washington Nationals against the Atlanta Braves in the Nationals' new ballpark Sunday, March 30, 2008 in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Washington Nationals Ryan Zimmerman, center, is met by his teammates after his solo home run gave the Nationals a 3-2 victory in the bottom of the ninth inning during the Major League Baseball home opener for the Washington Nationals against the Atlanta Braves in the Nationals' new ballpark Sunday, March 30, 2008 in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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Washington Nationals Ryan Zimmerman, center, is met by his teammates after his solo home run gave the Nationals a 3-2 victory in the bottom of the ninth inning during the Major League Baseball home opener for the Washington Nationals against the Atlanta Braves in the Nationals' new ballpark Sunday, March 30, 2008 in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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Washington Nationals Ryan Zimmerman, center, is met by his teammates after his solo home run gave the Nationals a 3-2 victory in the bottom of the ninth inning during the Major League Baseball home opener for the Washington Nationals against the Atlanta Braves in the Nationals' new ballpark Sunday, March 30, 2008 in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Oh, yes, they will talk about the first game at Nationals Park for years.

Ryan Zimmerman made certain of that with one swing.

Enhancing his reputation for success in the clutch, Zimmerman hit a tiebreaking, game-ending homer with two outs in the ninth inning Sunday night to give the Washington Nationals a 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves in the first regular-season game at the hosts’ $611 million new stadium.

“The kid’s incredible,” said Jon Rauch (1-0), who earned the win after blowing a save in the top of the ninth.

Consider this little touch: Zimmerman’s solo shot landed in the red seats just beyond a “Welcome Home” sign on the outfield wall in left-center.

And this: Braves pitchers had retired 24 consecutive Nationals batters before Zimmerman turned on a 1-0 sinker from Peter Moylan (0-1).

“The new stadium — it’s about the fans as much as it is about us,” Zimmerman said. “And to be able to do something for them like that, I think they deserve it as much as we deserve the win.”

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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 park provided a picturesque setting.

Around the stands, a buzz built among the 39,389 paying spectators when Zimmerman stepped to the plate in the ninth.

“You feel it a little bit,” said Zimmerman, who gave the fan who caught the home run an autographed jersey in exchange for the baseball. “I enjoy being in those situations.”

Already the face of the franchise after only two full seasons, he has four game-ending homers.

“He’s talented, and he’s mature beyond his age,” Washington manager Manny Acta said. “And he just does it. He’s special.”

Zimmerman truly was larger than life as he raised a fist when he rounded first base, then was mobbed by teammates at home plate, then came out of the dugout for a curtain call. That’s because all of those scenes were displayed 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, after they moved from Montreal.

“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.

Atlanta’s Chipper Jones, whose homer off Odalis Perez in the fourth landed in almost the same spot as Zimmerman’s shot, called the park “a gem.” Braves manager Bobby Cox thought it was “beautiful.” Atlanta catcher Brian McCann said, “Everything about it is just first-class.”

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They didn’t feel quite the same about the result, of course, which was the Nationals’ first victory in four season openers since moving to Washington from Montreal.

Just as he did for the franchise’s first game in the nation’s capital, back in 2005, President Bush made the short ride over from the White House and threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Meeting Bush gave Zimmerman far more jitters than did striding to the plate with a game’s outcome in the balance.

“I was nervous at first,” Zimmerman said. “I didn’t know what to say to him.”

Bush drew a fugue of cheers and jeers when he came out to toss the ball to Acta. It was part of a prelude of pomp and circumstance that was clearly topped by how the evening ended.

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 two runs in the first inning. Nick 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, Braves starter Tim Hudson was perfect, retiring his last 19 batters. Perhaps surprisingly, Washington starter 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.

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. This time, it was Kelly Johnson who singled to center, then was caught stealing.

What everyone will remember, though, is Zimmerman’s homer.

“You can’t really write up a script better than that to win the game,” the third baseman said. “It turned out perfect.”

Notes:@ The Nationals put LF Elijah Dukes (right hamstring) on the DL after the game and recalled RHP Chris Schroder from Triple-A Columbus. ... The Braves used new alternate road uniforms with navy blue caps and jerseys.