Sports

Nats Open 2013 Season With A Bang; Meet High Expectations

by David Elfin
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Jayson Werth celebrates with Ryan Zimmerman. (credit: Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Jayson Werth celebrates with Ryan Zimmerman. (credit: Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

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So much for any lingering hangover from Washington’s blown 6-0 lead against St. Louis in the decisive Game 5 of the 2012 National League Championship Series.

Admittedly, Miami is a de-fanged team (can a Marlin be de-fanged?) after yet another fire sale in South Florida, but the Nats simply harpooned the Marlins.

If not for Justin Ruggiano’s home run off Jordan Zimmermann leading off the second inning yesterday, the Marlins would’ve limped to New York with 27 zeroes to their (dis)credit. That’s more than are in the federal budget.

The Nats’ bats weren’t smoking with two games played in chilly April weather, one of those also in damp conditions, with just 11 runs and 20 hits during the three-game sweep. However, four of those 20 hits were homers. Reigning Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper opened his first full season by going deep in his first two at-bats. Gio Gonzalez, third in the 2012 NL Cy Young balloting, went yard to help his cause in Game 2. And Jayson Werth, the resident wise old head at 33 – imagine how wise he’d look if his brown beard was gray – smacked a three-run shot in the seventh to break open Game 3.

Werth is hitting just .167, but left fielder Harper and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman are at .500, part-time catcher Wilson Ramos at .400 and new center fielder Denard Span at .333. It didn’t matter that 2012 Silver Slugger-winning first baseman Adam LaRoche and second baseman Danny Espinosa were hitless or that All-Star shortstop Desmond went 1-for-10.

Washington’s defense, bolstered by Zimmerman’s offseason shoulder surgery, the addition of Span’s speed in center, and Harper’s cannon moving over from the middle of the outfield to replace the lesser arm of departed slugger Michael Morse, has been flawless other than Desmond’s error on the frigid Wednesday night.

But as was the case last season when the Nats rocketed from mediocrity to a major league-leading 98 victories and the NL East title, it’s their pitching that makes them such a force.

Right hander Stephen Strasburg, who’s finally expected to pitch an entire season at 24, baffled Miami with his assortment of blazing fastballs, slider and curves, allowing just three hits over seven innings and retiring 19 consecutive batters. The Cy Young favorite unexpectedly only struck out three Marlins but didn’t walk any.

Lefty Gonzalez certainly showed that the since-dropped allegations that he was using performance-enhancing drugs weren’t in his head as he was touched for just two hits in six innings while striking out five.

Zimmermann, the Taurus to Starsburg’s Ferrari and Gonzalez’ Corvette, wasn’t as overpowering, scattering eight hits over six innings but only surrendered the lone run. Like Gonzalez, he walked two batters.

With Strasburg pitching seven innings and Gonzalez and Zimmermann six apiece, do the math and that means the revamped bullpen headed by new closer Rafael Soriano shut out the Marlins over eight innings of work. Soriano, former closers Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen, the ever-reliable Craig Stammen and Ryan Mattheus, and unpredictable flamethrower Henry Rodriguez – Washington’s version of Nuke LaLoosh of “Bull Durham” fame – combined for seven strikeouts while allowing just two hits and three walks.

Steve McCatty, who inherited a mess when he became Washington’s pitching coach in June 2009, now owns one of baseball’s best jobs, helping manager Davey Johnson choose from among a variety of delectable options. It’s like trying to decide which dessert to order at The Cheesecake Factory.

Look, winning the first three contests, especially against a bad team at home, doesn’t mean much in the sweep of a 162-game marathon that is a major league season.

The Nats’ task gets much tougher starting tonight in Cincinnati when veteran right hander Dan Haren, whom they signed to replace departed free agent Edwin Jackson, tries to put his rough exhibition season behind him against the defending NL Central winners. Unheralded but effective fifth starter Ross Detwiler gets the ball tomorrow afternoon before Strasburg completes the series against the Reds on Sunday.

After this weekend, 12 of Washington’s 21 remaining games to close out April will come against the powerful Reds, Cardinals and Atlanta, which came oh so close to the playoffs the past two seasons. But nine will be against the Marlins, New York Mets and Chicago White Sox, who don’t really figure to be major players in 2013.

And yet, don’t forget the opening three-game party at Nats Park. Four of the past five Aprils have been very telling for the Nats, who started 14-6 last year and never looked back en route to making franchise history. In 2011, Washington was .500 after 20 games and just a half-game shy of that mark at the end of the year. In 2008 and 2009, 5-15 starts led to seasons with more than 100 defeats. Only 2010, during which a .500 start didn’t predict a 93-loss finish, didn’t follow form.

If the loosey-goosey and very talented Nats keep it going the rest of this month, there’s no reason to think that they won’t follow suit during what should be a glorious summer in D.C.

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

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