All eyes on Nationals to open season

All eyes on Nationals to open season

WASHINGTON -- There were already many reasons to watch the improving Nationals in 2008. Now there's one more.

On Tuesday, the Nationals released their 2008 schedule, marking their first season in new Nationals Park, but perhaps even bigger news is that the new stadium will open in front of a national audience on Sunday night, March 30, as Washington hosts Atlanta live on ESPN in Major League Baseball's first domestic game of the season.

"It's an honor for us to be able to play the first game of the season in our brand new stadium. It's going to give the team a lot of coverage," manager Manny Acta said. "We are going to be able to go out there and be in front of the whole world."

In keeping with long-standing tradition in the nation's capital, the Nationals have already extended an invitation to President George W. Bush to throw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to the game, which will be televised nationally at 8:05 p.m. ET.

"I cannot think of anything more fitting than the first domestic contest of 2008 being played in the nation's capital," team president Stan Kasten said. "The Washington Nationals are honored to host ESPN's prestigious Sunday night game and introduce Nationals Park to baseball fans worldwide."

The 81-game home slate features three visits apiece from all National League East rivals, including a pair of three-game weekend sets against the Braves (April 11-13 and Aug. 29-31).

Washington can look forward to three-game visits from tradition-rich clubs such as the Cubs (April 25-27) and Cardinals (June 3-5). The NL champion Rockies play a three-game weekend series at Nationals Park from Aug. 15-17.

Washington will host a quartet of four-game series at Nationals Park -- Pittsburgh (May 1-4), Milwaukee (May 23-26), San Francisco (June 6-9) and the Mets (Sept. 15-18).

Thanks to Interleague Play, the Nationals will face their natural rival, the Orioles, six times, with each club hosting three games.

The 2008 version of the Battle of the Beltways series begins the weekend of May 16 with a three-game set at Oriole Park. The Orioles visit Nationals Park for the first time during a three-game series from June 27-29.

Interleague Play -- which yields six series against five clubs from the American League -- includes three-game visits to Nationals Park from Texas (June 20-22) and Angels (June 23-25). The Rangers return to Washington for the first time since 1971, when they were known as the Washington Senators.

The Nationals have 11 homestands in all, two of which last at least 10 games (11 contests, April 23-May 4 and 10 contests, Sept. 15-25). Eighteen of Washington's first 32 games on its 2008 schedule will take place at Nationals Park, as will 10 of its final 13 contests of the year. For the second-straight season, the 2008 regular season concludes on the road in Philadelphia on Sept. 28.

"With all the trades the Nationals have made and the guys the team has been signing, I think we are going to be a pretty good ballclub. So I think to open up on ESPN and at a brand new stadium, I think it will be great," said closer Chad Cordero.

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