The Nats began their first season as one of baseball’s hunted today on a breezy afternoon on South Capitol Street. The defending National League East champions didn’t disappoint, riding the XX pitching of presumed ace Stephen Strasburg and homers in his first two at-bats by reigning Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper to a 2-0 victory over the Miami Marlins in just 2:10.
If this is how manager Davey Johnson’s team is going to deal with the pressure of being picked to win the World Series, it’s going to be a very sweet summer in Washington.
It was wonderful to see the Nats unveil their first division championship banner and for Harper, Strasburg (Silver Slugger), Johnson, Executive of the Year Mike Rizzo, Gold Glove/Silver Slugger first baseman Adam LaRoche and Silver Slugger shortstop Ian Desmond to be cheered by 45, 274, the largest regular season crowd in Nats Park’s six years as they received the hardware they earned last season.
While Strasburg still throws about as hard as anyone, the 24-year-old right hander’s first start of what should be his first full season was especially impressive in that he mowed down six of the first seven Marlins without recording a strikeout. Maintaining that kind of pace will save wear and tear on Strasburg’s surgically repaired pitching arm as compared to last season when he led the majors with 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings, the highest in nine seasons.
Strasburg, who was 0-3 with a 4.62 earned run average in spring training, was back in his elite form today, retiring 19 straight Miami batters after allowing a season-opening single to Juan Pierre. Strasburg’s line for the day: seven innings, three hits, no runs, three strikeouts, no walks, 80 pitches.
Meanwhile, left fielder Harper, who opened 2012 at Class AAA Syracuse, started his first big league Opening Day by continuing where he left off in the Grapefruit League which he led with an astonishing .478 batting average.
On his first swing with two down in the first, Harper smacked Ricky Nolasco’s pitch over the right field wall to make it 1-0 Washington. Then leading off the fourth, Harper repeated the blast with an even deeper shot to right to double the lead. In the sixth, Harper got under a 3-2 offering from Strasburg and flied out. He ended his at-bats with a pop-up which Marlins first baseman Casey Kotchman grabbed at the dugout steps.
While the 24-year-old Strasburg, the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, and the 20-year-old Harper, who was awarded the same distinction in 2010, were the big stories, don’t forget third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Washington’s top choice in 2005 (fourth overall), who’ s still just 28, had a futile day at the plate but showed that offseason shoulder surgery has helped restore his once-superb throwing arm to the condition that allowed him to erase Placido Polanco after a nifty diving stop to his left to end the top of the first.
Eighty one more victories in the ensuing 161 games will give Washington consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1933. Coincidentally, that was the last year that the World Series was played in the nation’s capital. Hall of Fame shortstop/manager Joe Cronin’s Senators were beaten by the New York Giants in five games.
Just getting to the Series would mark a two-round improvement for the Nats, who were stunned by St. Louis of the NL Division Series last October after leading 6-0 in the decisive Game 5 at home. However, with the 70-year-old Johnson having announced his plans to retire after the season, his players have no intention of settling for a repeat of what happened 80 years ago.
Johnson won 98 games in his second season as a manager, back in 1985, with the New York Mets, and equaled that last year in his second season in Washington. He led the Mets to the world title in his third year in New York. The plan is for the Nats to match that feat come October. One game in, there’s no reason to think otherwise. No foolin’.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin