Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that the Washington Nationals had not committed any errors during their season-opening series against the Miami Marlins. This version has been corrected.
The first series of the Washington Nationals’ season served, at once, to elevate their already sky-scraping expectations and to raise one more question. Over three muscle-flexing victories against the Miami Marlins, their pitching staff allowed a solitary run, their defense committed just one error and their offense finally sputtered to life. Now what happens when they pick on someone their own size?
The Nationals completed their dismissal of the Marlins late Thursday afternoon with a 6-1 victory at Nationals Park. Jordan Zimmermann allowed one run over six innings, Ryan Zimmerman reached base four times, including a two-run double, and Jayson Werth put the game out of reach in the seventh inning with a three-run bolt that cleared the visitor’s bullpen in left field. As the last out landed in Bryce Harper’s glove, giving them an 11-1 scoring edge in the series, the Nationals were one of four remaining unbeaten major league teams. By day’s end, they were the only one left.
After an offseason fire sale, the Marlins entered the season picked for the cellar. But the Nationals knew what a pest they had been for them, even as they crept from respectability to powerhouse in recent years. They went 9-9 against the Marlins last year, and 21-33 over the past three seasons.
“No matter what they’ve put out there, we’ve had trouble with them,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “So it was good to spank them this series.”
Now that the Nationals have picked the Marlins’ bones clean at their park, the truer test will come over the weekend. They will visit the Cincinnati Reds, winners of 97 games in 2012 and considered a favorite to reach the playoffs again. Giancarlo Stanton, Greg Dobbs and Justin Ruggiano batted 3-4-5 for the opponent Thursday. On Friday, in puny Great American Ball Park, it will be Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce.
The calendar may not allow the Nationals to glean much from the showdown. “It’s a little too early to talk about that kind of stuff,” Zimmerman said. But, only three games in, they already know almost everything they can know about one another. April has felt like a continuation of 2012.
“There’s not a whole lot different,” Werth said. “We’re aware of each other. We know what type of team we are. What we went through last year over the course of the season and the postseason, that probably speaks more volume about where we’re at as a team.”
There was no shortage of promising signs Thursday. First, with a two-run lead in the seventh inning, Johnson called on Henry Rodriguez, taking the chance he would be electric and not erratic.
In his season debut, Rodriguez sent down the Marlins in order, dialing back his triple-digit fastball to the 93-95 mph range. To finish the inning, Rodriguez froze Stanton with a diabolical curve. If the Nationals can add a reliable Rodriguez to their stable of bullpen options, it makes their staff even scarier.
“That’s going to be his role,” Johnson said. “Setting up, late-inning relief. If he’s on the ball club, I’m using him.”
In the bottom of the inning, Werth provided another highlight that could reverberate beyond one blustery afternoon. He crushed a 1-1, 93-mph fastball from Mike Dunn, one of the longest balls he has hammered since he came to the Nationals in 2011.
“I’ve liked what I saw all spring,” Johnson said. “I would never have noticed that his wrist was bothering him the way he was taking BP and all.”
After he returned from a broken left wrist late last summer, Werth hit .300 with a .394 on-base percentage. But he also drilled only three home runs, which he attributed to weakness in his wrist that caused him to use a bat weighing an ounce and a half less than his usual model. This year, Werth is back to his regular model – his “homer bat,” he calls it – and feeling more confident in his wrist strength. For one swing, he had plenty.
“I think [reporters] are a little more worried about my wrist than anybody else,” Werth said. “I feel pretty confident where I’m at. I feel good. I feel strong.”
Zimmermann did not dominate like Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez before him, but he tap-danced around raindrops for six innings. He struck out just one and allowed eight hits over six innings, but he surrendered only one run.
The Marlins spared themselves the indignity of becoming the first team since 1916 to begin the season with three consecutive shutout losses. The Nationals’ ran their season-opening scoreless streak to 19 innings before Ruggiano blasted a first-pitch, 94-mph fastball over the right-center field fence to lead off the second inning. Zimmermann couldn’t help feeling a little let down allowing the first run of the season. “I was thinking about that before the game,” he said.
By that point, though, the Nationals had already seized a lead they would not relinquish. In the first inning, Werth flared a single to left, and Harper followed with another to right. Zimmerman figures to have ample opportunities with runners clogging the bases given the hitters ahead of him, and he took full advantage of those. Zimmerman smoked LeBlanc’s 2-2 change-up off the center field fence, a clear double.
Werth could trot home. Harper, having to wait to first ensure the deep drive would fall, sped behind him. Third base coach Trent Jewett windmilled Harper home.
Cutoff man Donovan Solano’s throw hopped home in time to retire Harper, but catcher Rob Brantly let the ball skip past him as Harper slid into the plate. Harper crashed into Brantly’s elbow and, for one harrowing moment, writhed in the dirt and grabbed his face.
“The way he reacted, I thought he got shot or something,” Werth said. “I wanted to make sure the little guy was all right.”
Harper hopped up, though, and a few minutes later he sat in the dugout, laughing with Friday starter Dan Haren.
“It was fine,” Harper said. “He got me in the chin. I was just seeing if it was bleeding or not.”
The scare averted, the Nationals returned to the business of dominating the Marlins. The team plane would depart for Cincinnati later, headed for the next challenge in a long season off to a roaring start.
“We’ve got to feel good about where we’re at,” Werth said. “But it’s going to be a long, hard road.”
More on the Nationals:
Box score: Nationals 6, Marlins 1
Boswell: Washington’s defense does not rest
Minor leagues: Harrisburg Senators packed with prospects