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Opener Could Set Tone For Nats

by David Elfin
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Anthony Rendon celebrates the Nationals Opening Day win with teammates Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond. Washington defeated the New York Mets 9-7 in 10 innings. (credit: Elsa/Getty Images)

Anthony Rendon celebrates the Nationals Opening Day win with teammates Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond. Washington defeated the New York Mets 9-7 in 10 innings. (credit: Elsa/Getty Images)

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Beating the New York Mets isn’t normally a cause for a major celebration since the Kings of Queens haven’t finished with a winning record since 2008. However, yesterday’s 9-7 victory on Opening Day at Citi Field was a very good sign for the Washington Nationals.

Consider that the Nats had lost six of their previous nine openers, including one at New York. Among those scores: 11-1, 12-6 and 9-2. The only years that Washington got off on the right foot – other than in 2008 when Ryan Zimmerman won the first game at brand-new Nationals Park with a walkoff homer – are the only years that it finished with a winning record. Those also happen to be the past two seasons.

In 2012, the Nats edged the Cubs 2-1 in Chicago en route to winning the National League East title with a major league-leading 98-64 mark.

Last year, Stephen Strasburg, Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano combined on a three-hit shutout of visiting Miami while left fielder Bryce Harper began his first full season by providing the only offense that mattered with a pair of home runs in a 2-0 victory. Washington only went 85-76 the rest of the way to finish 10 games behind division winner Atlanta, but it was still its second-best season.

So there had to be some queasiness in the visitors’ dugout yesterday when Strasburg served up a three-run homer to Andrew Brown (who?) in the first inning and fellow former overall No. 1 draft pick Harper was knocked woozy in a collision while running the bases in the second.

However, 2012 All-Star Strasburg – after allowing another run on a walk, a single, a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly in the second – retired 10 straight Mets before departing after six innings with 10 strikeouts. And 2012 Rookie of the Year Harper stayed in the game after passing a concussion test.

The 2014 Nats then passed their first test by rallying for two runs in the seventh on a double by second baseman Anthony Rendon – playing in his first opener – and a bases-loaded walk drawn by center fielder Denard Span. Then, after Clippard surrendered a home to Juan Lagares, the first batter he faced in the bottom of the inning, Span doubled home shortstop Ian Desmond to deadlock the game again in the eighth.

In the 10th, Desmond gave Washington its first lead by bringing home right fielder Jayson Werth with a sac fly before Rendon blasted a three-run homer off former Nat John Lannan, giving the visitors the cushion they needed to survive David Wright’s two-run shot off new Nat Jerry Blevins when New York was down to its final out.

“That’s what we want to have as our DNA, that we never give up,” Matt Williams said after his wild debut as Washington’s manager. “We never give in. They proved that today. We have the kind of folks on this club who can do that.”

Indeed they did on Opening Day. Consider that after six of the first 12 Mets batters reached base, Strasburg, Drew Storen, Clippard and rookie Aaron Barrett – who got the victory in his big league debut — yielded just two hits and two walks the rest of the way.

In contrast, just three of Washington’s first 22 batters reached base – first baseman Adam LaRoche drove in both runs with a mammoth homer in the second inning — but from that point on, the Nats laced seven hits including two doubles and Rendon’s homer while also drawing five walks.

That’s resiliency, especially in someone else’s home opener on a cold and windy day and in a game in which catcher Wilson Ramos – named the cleanup hitter by Williams after seeing the ball like a grapefruit during spring training – exited with a hand injury in the seventh. X-rays were negative, but the oft-injured Ramos might be sidelined a while which would leave the talented pitching staff in the hands of Jose Lobaton, who has fewer than 200 career games behind the plate not to mention a much less potent bat.

Obviously, one trumph doesn’t mean that much in the course of a 162-game marathon. Strasburg, Clippard and Blevins won’t serve up homers every time they take the mound. Storen and Barrett won’t stay perfect. LaRoche and Rendon aren’t going to go deep every game. Ramos’ availability is in doubt, at least for a while. And Washington will play much tougher foes than New York in the months ahead.

But Opening Day can set a tone as Williams, who was a hard-as-nails type of player, said. The Nats were over .500 after 10 games just twice in the past eight years. Those were 2012 and 2013 when they won 98 and 86 games, repectively. Splitting the difference would give them a 92-70 record. Every NL team with as many victories has made the playoffs during Washington’s time in the league. The Nats didn’t make it easy in their opener, but they eventually got the job done and that’s all that mattered. There are no style points in baseball.

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.

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