CHICAGO — Brad Lidge did not expect to find himself on the mound for many ninth innings this season, certainly not on opening day at Wrigley Field. He signed with the Washington Nationals in late January with the understanding, despite his 223 career saves, that he would set up and provide a mentoring voice. “Give the guy a million dollars and let him look after the kids,” the 35-year-old said.
But there he was Thursday afternoon, capping an idyllic afternoon with save No. 224, finishing a 2-1 victory filled with both unexpected twists and predictable themes. The Nationals stuffed their first game with story lines they could have spent their entire off day Friday dissecting.
In sum, potentially the best team in Nationals history took one game to validate both the highest hopes and worst fears about it. From Stephen Strasburg, Tyler Clippard and Lidge, they received the kind of dominant pitching expected to vault them toward contention. From their offense, they received a reminder of what may block them from it.
“I don’t think there’s ever a championship that’s been won in the first game or the first month,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “You’ve just got to go out and play good baseball. We know what we can do. We’ve got our manager behind us. We really just have to be confident, go out there and play.”
The primary question the Nationals face this season is whether their offense can produce. Other than Desmond, who went 3 for 5 and knocked in the winning run in the ninth inning, the Nationals’ starting position players went 0 for 23 and left nine men on base. Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth, the Nationals’ No. 4 and 5 hitters, went 0 for 7, each of them twice missing opportunities to drive in two runners in scoring position.
But the Nationals’ offense did not resemble their 2011 attack, which ranked 25th in the majors, in every way. Werth’s game-tying, bases-loaded walk gave the Nationals six walks for the day, a total they reached in less than 10 percent of their games last season.
And the most pressing question about the offense was whether Desmond and Danny Espinosa would reach base often enough. They each did three times, counting the at-bat Espinosa reached on an error, and gave the middle of the order ample scoring chances.
One game is never a sound sample to draw conclusions from, and Thursday’s conditions made it an especially poor example. The wind, blowing straight in from left, knocked down several hard-hit balls. Ryan Zimmerman probably would have had two homers on a different day. LaRoche called Zimmerman’s second blast, in the sixth inning, one of the hardest balls he had ever seen hit.
“I couldn’t believe that one didn’t go over both walls,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
Strasburg received help from the wind, too, especially when Alfonso Soriano crushed a flyball to center that did not even reach the warning track. But Strasburg did not require much assistance in seven smooth innings, firing only 82 pitches, 58 of them strikes.
The Cubs’ plan against Strasburg revealed how teams will likely attack him, and how he will respond. Strasburg has adjusted his approach to reduce long at-bats and strikeouts, favoring weak contact and quick innings. The Cubs complied, swinging early in the count, unwilling to fall behind Strasburg as he pumped strikes. The first six Cubs batters, and 10 of the first 13, saw two or fewer pitches.
“I think that’s kind of something hitters are going to do throughout the season,” Strasburg said. “They’re going to try and put the ball in play early because they don’t want two strikes. At the same time, I can’t just lay it in there.”
Strasburg’s first 10 pitches were fastballs, and he threw first-pitch heaters to all but one of the first 11 hitters he faced. He effectively established the inside corner, but as the Cubs started to jump on his early fastball, Strasburg changed his strategy.
Among his first 26 pitches, Strasburg threw only four curveballs and no change-ups. In his final 56 pitches, 26 were off-speed, including five first-pitch curveballs.
“They’re all going to go after him,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “We all know what’s going to happen. They’re going to try to jump on the first pitch. We talked about it, too. If they’re going to come up first-pitch swinging, it’s a good chance to get a feel for the breaking ball. If they want to come out and whack at the first pitch, get a little feel for it and use it.”
Strasburg’s breezy innings make one wonder: If it looks so easy, why will the Nationals limit him to 160 of them? But throwing 95 mph — his average fastball Thursday — is not easy on the arm, and the Nationals will not budge on their precautionary restriction in Strasburg’s first full season following Tommy John surgery, even if it means shutting him down in a playoff push.
“Unfortunately, I think we’re going to end up needing him at the end of the year,” Werth said. “Under the circumstances, we won’t have him. We’re going to need to get every inning, every pitch out of him while he’s here. And we did that.”
If the Nationals stick to their script, they will be playing many more games like their opener: low-scoring, grind-it-out affairs. Whether or not they perform as expected, the next 161 games will decide.