NEW YORK — Last season started so perfectly for the Washington Nationals.
Stephen Strasburg went seven innings and Bryce Harper homered twice in a 2-0 win over Miami. First step on their march back to October baseball — or so it seemed.
Before long, the Nationals hit the skids and missed the playoffs at 86-76 after topping the majors with 98 wins in 2012. Now, they’re a popular World Series pick again.
“I think a lot of it has to do with how much talent is on our roster and how good we look on paper,” Strasburg said. “That’s not going to carry you the whole way.”
The hard-throwing Strasburg — with a new pitch in his arsenal — will try to get Washington off to another strong start Monday against Dillon Gee and the New York Mets at Citi Field.
Rookie manager Matt Williams has plenty to be excited about: Harper looks healthy following knee surgery, the pitching staff is stocked and the Nationals are widely favored to win the NL East after defending champion Atlanta lost two important arms to season-ending injuries this spring.
“Last year was a fantastic season for the Braves. They started off well,” Williams said. “We certainly want to start well this year, too.”
While not nearly as much is expected of the Mets, coming off five straight losing seasons and their second consecutive 74-88 finish, they often play their best ball on opening day.
New York is 34-18 (.654) in season openers, the top mark in the majors, despite losing its first eight. And the Mets have won 20 of their past 22 season openers at home.
Gee was not their first choice to pitch, but durability makes a difference. All-Star ace Matt Harvey is recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery and left-hander Jonathon Niese was slowed by back, triceps and elbow trouble in what he called “the spring training from hell.”
Niese begins the season on the disabled list but is penciled in to start Sunday against Cincinnati.
“It’s kind of by default,” Gee conceded. “I’m very thankful for that opportunity, but really I’ve just got to take it like any other game. It’s just one of 30-something starts I hope to get this year, but it’s definitely a big honor.”
Not that Gee lacks any credentials.
The gutsy right-hander had a 2.71 ERA during the final four months last season to finish 12-11 with a 3.62 ERA after almost losing his spot in the rotation. He followed that up with a 1.08 ERA in four starts this spring, including six hitless innings against Houston in his final tuneup.
Gee will face a dangerous lineup that features Harper, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond. Anthony Rendon takes over at second base, and Adam LaRoche hopes for a bounce-back season at first.
“I think everybody’s confident going into the season. I think it should be a good year for us,” said Strasburg, ready to start his third opener in a row after going 8-9 with 3.00 ERA last season.
The top pick in the 2009 draft, Strasburg had an October operation for bone chips in his surgically repaired right elbow and spent much of the spring working on a slider to go with his 95-98 mph heat.
He opposes David Wright and a Mets lineup boosted by the additions of free-agent outfielders Curtis Granderson and Chris Young. But there are major question marks at shortstop (Ruben Tejada) and first base, where Ike Davis and Lucas Duda were limited by leg injuries this spring.
“We certainly didn’t get all the answers we wanted,” manager Terry Collins said.
After a rainy weekend in New York, the weather is expected to clear up by game time Monday afternoon. The Mets will honor longtime broadcaster and Hall of Fame slugger Ralph Kiner, who died in February, with a pregame ceremony on the field. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is set to throw out the first pitch.
“Just treat it like another game,” Strasburg said. “If they have a flyover, they have a flyover.”
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