There is anticipation that is rewarded, and there is what happened Monday afternoon at Nationals Park. Washington has hosted 80 seasons of major league baseball, nine since the sport returned in 2005, and even before Stephen Strasburg unleashed his first fastball and Bryce Harper took his first swing, this one brimmed with possibility. And on a day the Nationals began by revealing the 2012 National League East Champions banner above their massive scoreboard, they followed with something more dramatic: unleashing Strasburg and Harper on the rest of baseball.
The right-handed pitcher, just 24, and the precocious outfielder, all of 20, embody baseball’s renaissance here, and they all but staged a public game of one-upsmanship in front of a crowd that — suddenly, it seems — expects extraordinary performances. Strasburg threw seven clinical innings in which the Miami Marlins looked all but helpless, and Harper hit a missile-like home run in each of his first two at-bats, the only runs necessary in what became a 2-0 victory on opening day.
“Kind of a storybook day,” was how reliever Tyler Clippard characterized it, and for a couple of hours, it felt that way, with a pair of 100-loss seasons slipping into more distant memory, new accomplishments seemingly lurking around every corner. Yet baseball is, more than anything, a grind. In no sport is the result of one particular game less meaningful. Still, after what Harper and Strasburg did in front of a regular season record crowd of 45,274, so many wearing red, where will expectations go?
“The way that it’s changed in a quick five or six years, the outlook for this team, the excitement for the organization, and just baseball in general . . . it’s exciting for all of us,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who well remembers those 100-loss seasons. “You want to be a part of a team that has a city behind it.”
Monday, it felt like that city — scarred by three decades without baseball, then seven years with a mediocre product — was squarely behind the Nationals. The once hapless franchise is the chic pick to win the World Series. Strasburg and Harper have each appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated this spring. And just after 9 a.m. — four hours before game-time – Laura and Ed Williams finished their drive in from Vienna, pulled into a parking lot across the street from the park as soon as the gate opened, plopped out two chairs behind their car, and basked in both sunlight and anticipation.
“It’s exciting to see so many people being here,” said Ed Williams, an admitted baseball junky. “You have that thought that, ‘We were here from the beginning, and those people are coming now.’ But still, I never thought I’d see this.”
“This” turned out to be a packed house, with the red-clad fans positioned in their seats in plenty of time for the pregame ceremony in which the Nationals embraced the success of last season by honoring a slew of award winners — Harper as the National League’s rookie of the year, Davey Johnson as the manager of the year, General Manager Mike Rizzo as the executive of the year, and on and on.
“You knew that everyone got all these awards,” Clippard said. “But looking at them on the table, you’re like, ‘Jeez. That’s a lot of them.’ But it gives us confidence to know what we’re capable of and the type of talent that we have in this locker room.”
None is more talented as a hitter than Harper, none more talented as a pitcher than Strasburg, both once the first overall choice in baseball’s draft. In a way, even as they excelled Monday, they are constant reminders of where this organization once was, because in order to be able to select them, the Nationals had to finish with baseball’s worst record in back-to-back years.
“We hit the jackpot in Vegas the two years we had 59 wins with Strasburg and Harper, and that was great,” said Mark Lerner, one of the team’s principal owners. “But somebody once said to me, ‘You know, you’ll look back on those days with 59 wins and just smile, because you’ll never believe it happened.’
“It’s true. On a day like today, you look back and smile and say, ‘It’s part of the process.’ And now, hopefully, we have a town that’s totally excited about this.”
When Harper launched his first homer in the bottom of the first, there was little doubt about that emotion. He all but sprinted around the bases as the crowd thundered. “I was really excited about that one,” he allowed later. And when he powered another into the right field seats in the fourth, there was bedlam. The phenom was forced to come to the top step of the dugout for a wave to the crowd, a curtain call.
Strasburg responded to that flair with an efficient ferocity, allowing a leadoff single, then retiring the next 19 men he faced. And when the team’s new closer, Rafael Soriano, recorded one last strikeout to end the game, Harper ran to meet center fielder Denard Span, leaping and chest-bumping in celebration. Strasburg, in turn, calmly fell in line with his teammates to exchange high-fives, a workmanlike response to what was, in so many ways, an extraordinary day.
“You couldn’t really have scripted it too much better,” Clippard said.
Really? Ask Harper, who isn’t one to lower expectations.
“I think a perfect formula would be a World Series win,” he said. “That’d be pretty cool.”
There are 161 games left to play over the next 180 days, and anything could happen. But for one day, an offseason’s worth of anticipation was rewarded, and the possibilities seemed limitless.