Notes: Lerner says changes are a start

Notes: Lerner says changes are a start

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Mark Lerner was on "cloud nine," and for good reason. Monday marked his first Opening Day as principal owner of the Nationals, and he is expecting the team to play above expectations as long as it gets quality starting pitching.

Lerner is already pleased by the positive energy in the clubhouse, thanks to the manay changes made by general manaher Jim Bowden this offseason. Lerner says the team now belongs to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and catcher Brian Schneider.

"I think a lot of people are underestimating us. If we get a little luck from the starting pitching, we will be a lot better than a lot of people think," Lerner said. "I think with some fresh faces down there -- and a lot of the veterans who have left -- I think there is a great clubhouse feel this year.

"You feel it when you walk in. It's Zim's team, it's Brian's team now. I think getting rid of some of the veterans, it makes a difference. The team knows they have to play together, win together. I think the atmosphere has been tremendous."

Lerner also said he was unfazed by the fact the Nationals didn't sell out the home opener. The Nationals were expecting 37,000 fans before the game and a walkup of about 3,000 more. Robert F. Kennedy Stadium holds 46,000 fans.

"You always want to have a sellout, but it is a week day. There's a holiday (Passover) coming up tonight. It does make it a little difficult," Lerner said.

Here's what he's thinking: While Chad Cordero is the closer and Jon Rauch is the setup man, manager Manny Acta said the rest of the bullpen must earn the rest of the spots, and the pitchers have to be ready to pitch when they are asked to. So guys such as Ryan Wagner and Jesus Colome could be finding themselves pitching in long relief.

"None of those guys have the track record in those other spots. They will not be handed out to them," Acta said.

Thinking about Jim: Catcher/infielder Robert Fick said he wants to be the best reserve in the game because of Bowden. Fick said that Bowden has stuck by him when he missed most of the 2006 season because of injuries and allowed him to go home to visit his ailing mother, Gloria, who has lung cancer.

"I showed up here and I had surgery last year and he treated me like a king the whole year," Fick said. "I signed a Minor League deal this offseason, and I don't want to say that I knew that I was on the team, but I had a pretty good idea because the guy has been loyal to me."

Big surprise: Colome appeared to be a long shot to make the team out of Spring Training, but did something that he has never done before. He stopped throwing the fastball every time he got in trouble. He is now throwing breaking balls when he behind in the count.

"He's making use a changeup and a slider more often," said Jose Rijo, the special assistant to the general manager.

Coming up: The Nationals return to RFK on Tuesday night to play the Marlins at 7:05 ET. Shawn Hill will take the mound for Washington, while left-hander Scott Olsen will go for Florida.

Hill was the Nationals' best pitcher in Spring Training, but his talent on the mound was never the issue. It was staying healthy, which has struggled to do the last three seasons because of elbow problems. He is healthy now and will face the Marlins for the first time in his career.

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