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Friday, April 25, 2008

Second-baseman's Slam Silences "Shea Stadium South"

There is still too much to recap for the month so far, but last night's game against the New York Mets was special for me several reasons and I just have to blog about this.

Number one - the Nats won! 10-5 against the division-rival New York Mets, who had already beaten them 4 straight games this young season, and they did it in such dramatic fashion, coming back from a 3-0 deficit to tie the game 3-3 before...

Number two - the Felipe Lopez GRAND SLAM! There it was, the score tied 3-3 with 2 out in the 6th inning and Felipe Lopez ("FLop", to us hard-core fans), who had just recently won back the starting 2B job from the struggling Ronnie Belliard, launched a 3-2 change-up from Aaron Heilman several rows into the right center field seats. It was a thing of true beauty - not a rocket, not a "frozen rope", just a nice parabola, which "settled" into the seats, as they say. My God, it was almost lazy how that ball arced over right-fielder Ryan Church's head and out of the field.

I was so relieved that the Nats were able to get that little bit of ballpark history out of the way. It was bad enough that the hated Larry "Chipper" Jones of the division-rival Atlanta Braves hit the first regular-season home run in the new ballpark on Opening Day (why couldn't it have been a National? D'oh! Eh, at least we had Zimm's walk-off homer) but I dearly hoped that several Nationals Park "firsts" would belong to our own players, and now we have another one, and a juicy one at that: the first Grand Slam hit in our park was by our very own Felipe Lopez and it was the game winner, the RBI's which put the Nats over the top. Mark your calendars, Nats fans, this is the answer to an excellent trivia question someday.

For four seasons now, I've had to suffer through the Mets visits to R.F.K. and now Nationals Park, and each time, the stands are FILLED with Mets fans. It is so ridiculous, the imbalance of fans, that our ballparks have become temporarily "Shea Stadium South". The cheers for the Mets are louder than for the Nats, and I feel bad for our players, who deserve better support in their own home ballpark. The only good part is, when the Nats actually BEAT the Mets at home, and the Mets fans fall silent. My God, that is a wonderful moment. When Lopez hit that Grand Slam, it just sucker-punched the Mets fans into silence - except for the fans yelling, "Heilman, you're a bum!" that is. It might not happen again this season, but for one warm spring night, the Nats came from behind and roared ahead of the Mets to deliver the hometown fans a sweet victory which was most overdue. And for "FLop", the baseball gods showered him with redemption, after a season where he seemed to be malaise and ennui personified.

It was also very nice to see pitcher Mike O'Connor back after missing all of 2007 due to surgery and recovery. Remember him? He's the Ellicott City, Maryland youngster who went to George Washington University and played well for them. He's a future starter and played well-enough in the minors for the Nats that they called him up and sent down Ray King (actually, offered him an option to AAA Columbus) but for now, O'Connor is out of the bullpen, and he acquitted himself very well last night in his inaugural appearance this season.

I arrived at the ballpark towards the end of the 3rd inning and after saying hello to Rico, back selling programs after being sick during the last homestand, I went up to section 240 to try my luck with the Five Guys stand. I've never had Five Guys burgers before, but I've heard about them for years, and I was happy to see that either the Nationals or concessioner Centerplate made a deal to get them into the ballpark because they originated here in our area, so they are "local" even if they are franchised now. I ordered a bacon cheeseburger with raw onions, pickles, lettuce, tomato, mustard, ketchup and relish, and also an order of fries.

I'll say here and now that this was the greatest fast-food burger I've ever had in my entire life. Seriously. No joke, no exaggeration. Five Guys lives up to their vaunted reputation and hype. The only better burgers I've ever had have been at top restaurants here in D.C. such as Michel Richard's Central and also at Circle Bistro. On top of how fantastic the burger was, I LOVE how they served me. You ordered, you paid, then you waited for your number to be called. And the burger was wrapped in aluminum foil and placed in its own paper bag, and the fries were placed in a cup and in their own paper bag. BRILLIANT! These were easy to carry (MUCH easier than a cardboard tray) and kept me from having to worry about dropping or spilling any of them.

I haven't tried every single food offering yet, and I haven't actually been to the Ben's Chili Bowl stand itself (though I've really enjoyed the Ben's half-smoke "all the way", that's a great meal), but I'll say for the record that, if asked, my vote for the best Nationals Park food goes to Five Guys first (both due to quality and service) and Hard Times a close second, with Ben's in third place but not by much. We have some pretty darned good stadium food to be proud of, I think.

So this was a nice evening of firsts for Nationals fans in general and for me in particular, one of those special nights that reminds me of why I go to such great lengths to attend Nationals baseball games in the first place. Nothing beats the thrills that a baseball game can give to you.

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