Nationals vs. Braves: Washington shut out on opening day 2011

One game out of baseball’s marathon season, especially the first one, played when the temperature and drizzle still make you think “winter,” is no time for measuring progress or taking stock. The Washington Nationals may well find a way to produce crooked numbers and offensive bursts this season. On opening day, under a gunmetal-gray sky, against a sinker-balling veteran operating at the height of his powers, they managed to hit eight balls out of the infield all game.

The Atlanta Braves’ early spasm of offense earned them a 2-0 victory Thursday afternoon before 39,055 at Nationals Park, spoiling Livan Hernandez’s stellar performance and Jayson Werth’s Nationals debut with a non-sellout shutout. But if the next 161 games play out like the first, aside from the weather, the total in their run column and the final result, the Nationals will take it.

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Fans brave cold and rain at Nationals Park to savor their first peanuts and Cracker Jacks of the 2011 season.

Fans brave cold and rain at Nationals Park to savor their first peanuts and Cracker Jacks of the 2011 season.

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The way the Nationals opened their season Thursday afternoon closely reflected how they spent their offseason, when they upgraded their defense and speed and left the subject of scoring runs on the back burner. The Nationals committed no errors and turned several hits that would have scooted past gloves last season into outs. Runs, they believe, will come.

“The offense is going to come and go,” second baseman Danny Espinosa said. “When it’s there, we’ll win.”

On opening day across baseball, aces, young guns and fireballers climbed the mound and threw gas. In Washington, Derek Lowe, 37, and Hernandez, 36, spun lazy sinkers and sliders over the corners. The radar guns didn’t need the first “9” to give an accurate reading. Batters flailed, anyway.

Hernandez allowed two runs on four hits and no walks in 61 / 3 innings and retired 16 of the final 17 batters he faced, including 15 in a row. He induced lethargic flyballs with diving sinkers and struck out Dan Uggla on a 60-mph curveball.

His only mistake came when Jason Heyward led off the second. With the count 2-1, Hernandez decided he would throw a slider inside and at the knees, the same pitch Heyward had fouled off for the first strike. The pitch stayed over the plate, and Heyward crushed it — the second season in a row he smashed a homer to right in his first at-bat.

“If it’s in, maybe it will be a foul ball or a groundball to first base,” Hernandez said. “If you hang it there, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”

Against Lowe, the Nationals hit four balls out of the infield, including warning-track drives by Rick Ankiel and Adam LaRoche that, on a warmer day, might have flown over the fence. Lowe’s sinkers baffled the Nationals, as did, occasionally, the consistency of home plate umpire Tim Welke’s strike zone.

“That’s probably the best I’ve seen him pitch in a long time,” Werth said.

Despite walking twice and knocking five hits, “we were in the game until the last out,” left fielder Michael Morse said. They could thank Hernandez, a bullpen that retired eight of the 10 batters it faced and their new-and-improved defense.

The Nationals led the majors with 127 errors last year. On Thursday, LaRoche made a diving stop to his right, Espinosa made a slick back-handed play and Werth made two tumbling catches in right. One game, again, is not the time for judgment. But the Nationals’ upgraded defense has given the entire team a new confidence.

“It’s clear to see that we’re better,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “We’re going to be a totally different ball club, because over the last couple years we haven’t had that. We’ve been not a good defensive team. We are now.”

In his first at-bat with the Nationals — after he walked to the plate with Guns and Roses’ “November Rain” blaring — Werth chopped a single up the middle. When Ryan Zimmerman sent a single to right, Werth sped from first to third, a skill he prides himself on.

The Nationals had Werth and Zimmerman on first and third with one out — and they stayed there. With their best hitters batting second and third, the Nationals will rely on LaRoche and Morse to drive them in. In the season’s first inning, LaRoche popped to second and Morse smoked a two-hopper right at the shortstop.

“I hope I get a lot of those opportunities,” Morse said. “I hit it hard. I wish it went through. . . . Not every day are going to face pitchers that are on like that. We’ll be okay.”

The squandering of the opportunity and the zero on the scoreboard set an apt tone for the game. The Nationals have faith it was not also an omen for their season.

“I don’t know if it would have made a difference who hit where,” Riggleman said. “It was who pitched today. I think we’ve got a good-hitting ball club, but good pitching shut us down today.”

 
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