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03/28/08 10:00 AM ET

Nats buzzing about new stadium, roster

Special Opening Night ushers in season of change for club

There's a good reason the Nationals are excited about the 2008 season: They're going to play in a brand-new ballpark and bring more excitement to the diamond, especially after general manager Jim Bowden made a handful of deals to give Nats fans something to cheer about.

Outfielders Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes, infielder Aaron Boone, catcher Paul Lo Duca and left-hander Odalis Perez are all expected to be major contributors to a club that finished fourth in the National League East last year.

The Nationals will start showing how confident they are when they face the Braves on Sunday night. The game will be an historic event. It will be the first Major League game played at Nationals Park and President George W. Bush will throw out the first pitch.

The occasion will mark the second time President Bush has thrown out the ceremonial first pitch at a Nationals game. The first one occurred on April 14, 2005, when Washington played its first game at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.

"Unless there is a national crisis, he has been warming up since December [to throw the pitch]," Nationals owner Mark Lerner said. "He is very excited about it."

President Bush has attended four Nationals games, and the team is 2-2 in those games. The last time he was at a Nationals game was July 5, when the Nationals lost to the Cubs, 4-2.

"I can't wait to play there," said closer Chad Cordero of the new stadium. "I have been excited ever since they dug the ground. I was hoping to be staying here and see it. Now it's less than a week away. It's going to be exciting. I can't wait to get in there and walk around."

For the first time since the team has been in Washington, none of the position players will be complaining about the dimensions -- like they were at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. Nationals Park is expected to be more hitter-friendly. At RFK, the position players often complained they had a tough time hitting home runs.

"It's over with now," manager Manny Acta said. "Those comments about RFK are not even here. I'm looking forward to getting in there and see how it plays. We'll get as much work as we can, so we can call it home-field advantage."

The game also marks the return of first baseman Nick Johnson, who will play his first game since Sept. 23, 2006, when he broke his leg at Shea Stadium. Johnson spent all of 2007 rehabbing his injury.

"It will be great to play," Johnson said. "It will be awesome. It has been a long time."

Pitching matchup
WSH: Odalis Perez (8-11, 5.57 ERA in 2007)
Acta said Perez received the Opening Night nod because he has more experience than anyone in the starting rotation. Perez will face the Braves for the eighth time in his career. He is 1-3 with a 5.21 ERA during his career against them. Perez started his career with the Braves and played for them for parts of three seasons.

ATL: Tim Hudson (16-10, 3.39 ERA in 2007)
The Nationals may have a tough time with Hudson, who is 5-1 with a 1.09 ERA in eight starts against them.

Luis Ayala, Cordero, Cristian Guzman and Johnson are the only players who were with the Nationals on Opening Day in 2005. ... The Nationals were 41-40 when the game was decided by two runs or fewer in '07. ... Acta made 588 pitching changes last year. It was a Major League record.

 Buy tickets now to catch the game in person.

On the Internet
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television

On radio
• WWWT 1500

Up next
• Monday: Nationals (Matt Chico, 7-9, 4.63) at Phillies (Brett Myers, 5-7, 4.33), 3:05 p.m. ET
• Tuesday: Off-day
• Wednesday: Nationals (Tim Redding, 3-6, 3.64) at Phillies (Cole Hamels, 15-5, 3.39), 7:05 p.m. ET

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.