If the next six months unfold like the Nationals’ 2-0, opening day victory over the Miami Marlins, Washington’s 2013 season may be an exercise in imagination. Try to think of the perfect thing to happen. And then, if form from Game 1 holds, double it.
Can you imagine? On his first opening day, Harper blasted a home run in each of his first two at-bats. Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals’ other first overall pick, used his powerful efficiency for seven shutout innings, in which he allowed three hits and no walks, needing only 80 pitches before Manager Davey Johnson pulled him.
Monday began with a celebration of what the Nationals accomplished last season, the revealing of a division title banner and passing out individual trophies. What came after the first pitch stretched the limits of what may happen this season, a fever dream for longtime followers who endured 100-loss seasons and waited until now, their twin forces at last together for a full season.
“You just shake your head,” new Nationals center fielder Denard Span said. “You shake your head in amazement.”
In his first at-bat of the season, Harper pulverized a hanging curveball and sent a 385-foot declaration of his intentions throttling to right field. In his first start of a season without a team-imposed innings limit, Strasburg retired 19 consecutive batters following a single to lead off the game. Before the afternoon ended, gray clouds having replaced bright sun, Harper heard a smattering of “M-V-P” chants and Strasburg had barely broken a sweat. Harper is 20; Strasburg is 24.
“They’re both just scratching the surface,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “They’ve got a lot more epic things in them.”
They had help. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman’s brilliant, diving play to end the first inning saved a run and started Strasburg rolling. Once Johnson gave Strasburg a quick hook — denying him a first-ever chance to pitch into the eighth inning — the Nationals’ bullpen preserved the shutout. Clippard fired a scoreless eighth before Rafael Soriano, the $14 million closer the Nationals signed as a free agent, recorded his first save.
Mostly, the Nationals leaned on their phenoms. Harper came to the plate in the first inning with two outs and no one on base. Ricky Nolasco started him with a splitter, an 82-mph pitch Harper regarded with indifference as it dropped out of the strike zone. Nolasco then threw a sweeping, 73-mph curveball, trying to curl over a breaking ball for strike one when most hitters would expect a fastball.