WASHINGTON — The first sign of rancor came when the New York Yankees' lineup was introduced, and a photo of Alex Rodriguez appeared on the video board beyond center field at Nationals Park.
More full-throated jeers arrived in the top of the third inning Saturday afternoon, as Rodriguez stepped to the plate for New York against the Washington Nationals during the exhibition finale for both teams — and marking the three-time AL MVP's return to a major league stadium after a season-long drug suspension.
Moments later, Rodriguez's bat failed to make contact with Doug Fister's 75 mph curveball on a 2-2 count, and the day's pattern had been established. Booed before the game, and booed again before each of his three at-bats as a designated hitter, Rodriguez struck out swinging all three times he was up during the Yankees' 4-3 victory over the Nationals.
"I've always definitely heard much worse," Rodriguez said. "I thought the biggest reaction was when we were running sprints before the game and they announced my name. I was like, 'Wow, that was loud.' Sometimes, I just can't figure out if there's boos or cheers. But there certainly were a lot of boos, I guess."
In sum, Rodriguez said, "I'm almost numb to it."
Less than four months shy of his 40th birthday, he'll begin the regular season at home at Yankee Stadium on Monday, facing the Toronto Blue Jays.
"It's been a long time. This whole thing is pretty humbling. ... I'm like a rookie again. I'm really looking forward to playing baseball," Rodriguez said. "It really is like a dream come true again. To be back playing the game that I love so much, I feel like I'm 18 years old with (manager) Lou Piniella in Seattle again."
Still, this wind-whipped, sunny Saturday might have provided a sampling of the sort of reception he can expect on the road in 2015.
"The fans, they have their own opinions," said Yankees starter Nathan Eovaldi, who gave up three runs in the first inning. "It's going to be different everywhere we go."
Rodriguez fanned on another curveball in the 70s from Fister in the fifth inning, then had the same thing happen against righty reliever Craig Stammen in the seventh.
"I was jumpy," Rodriguez said.
Yankees: Austin Romine was designated for assignment after losing the backup catcher's job to John Ryan Murphy.
Nationals: OF-1B Clint Robinson made the Washington Nationals' opening day roster as a lefty batter off the bench, beating out Mike Carp for that role. Carp and LHP Rich Hill were re-assigned to the minors.
Yankees: RF Carlos Beltran went 0 for 3 after missing two games with a stomach virus.
Nationals: Closer Drew Storen, recovering from a blister on his right foot, got just one out in the eighth, allowing a double by Didi Gregorius and Chris Young's two-run homer. But Storen said his foot felt fine. ... CF Denard Span played three innings of defense Saturday at extended spring training in Florida as he works his way back from a second surgery for a core muscle problem.
Yankees: RHP Masahiro Tanaka, who will start Monday against Toronto, said everyone should expect his fastball velocity to be down this season.
Nationals: RHP Max Scherzer begins earning his $210 million contract by making the first opening day start of his career, Monday at home against the Mets. Scherzer is still adjusting to having left the Detroit Tigers, as evidenced by when he spoke Saturday. "We've got to go out there and win this Ameri ..." Scherzer began, before cutting himself off mid-word and resuming: "National League East, I should say. I'm so used to saying 'American League,' I haven't gotten used to saying 'National League' yet."
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