The sun was shining, a pitch hadn’t been thrown, and the World Series ring on Mike Rizzo’s left hand — roughly the size of a toaster — served as a reminder that anything was possible for the Washington Nationals once and maybe it could be again. If you’re pessimistic in the hours before Opening Day, well, may the first beer of your season be eternally half-empty.
So with that nothing’s-gone-wrong-yet backdrop, Rizzo was able to assess what he foresaw for this group.
“Our defense, especially our infield defense, has improved and will continue to improve,” Rizzo said. “I think that pitchers are focused on throwing a lot more strikes, having courage to throw it over the plate and let your defenders help you out.”
And then the defense and pitchers played the game.
“I got to be better,” said CJ Abrams, the shortstop who made three errors.
“Any time you’re ahead, get them aggressive, get them to chase — that was a big thing for us this spring as a group,” said Patrick Corbin, the starter who seems allergic to the first-pitch strike. “Today we maybe got away from that a little bit.”
There are going to be a lot of 7-2 losses for these Nationals, which was exactly the score against the five-time defending National League East champion Atlanta Braves on Thursday at Nationals Park. With the lineup the Nationals employ — 3-4 hitters who were unwanted by their original teams and set free long before they were required to be — runs will be scarce. Joey Meneses can come up just four or five times a game.
But if these Nationals are going to play a brand of baseball fit to be consumed by the masses — and judging by an Opening Day crowd of 35,756, “masses” is open to interpretation — it can’t be the brand of baseball that so defined last summer’s aimless saunter to 107 losses. Yes, this is a 162-question test. But on the first query, the Nats whiffed — and badly.
“I can tell you now,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “They were a little nervous. I was nervous.”
Fine. It’s Opening Day. But if there’s a formula for this team to win some games, it’s both exact in its ingredients and the exact opposite of what played out in Game 1.
“The biggest thing that we did all spring was fundamentals,” Martinez said. “They know that with our pitching staff we have to catch the baseball. We can’t allow teams to get 28, 29, 30 outs.”
Count ’em up Tuesday. Twenty-eight, 29, 30. Ding, ding, ding!
“For me it’s about keeping things simple,” Martinez said. “I tell them all the time: Make the routine plays. … The simple plays have to be made.”
And that was before the game.
So go directly to Abrams, the 22-year-old of whom much is expected. With one out in the second inning and Braves runners on first and second, Corbin got Atlanta star Ronald Acuña Jr. to hit a grounder to Abrams’s left. The inning should have ended right there. Martinez’s pregame words jump directly to the front of the brain.
“The double plays have to be made,” Martinez said. “We definitely have to do better catching the baseball.”
Abrams didn’t catch the baseball. He booted it. Not only was the double play not turned, the Nats didn’t record an out. The Braves weren’t held to one run in the inning; instead, they scored three.
There’s one of a hundred differences in the game.
“Abrams is out there trying to make every play he can,” Corbin said. “He’s a very talented player. Things like that happen, and it’s our job to try to continue to make pitches and try to pick up a teammate.”
Corbin just couldn’t. His struggles since he recorded nine crucial outs in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series — man, how long ago that seems — have been sliced open and dissected like a frog in a freshman biology class. Pick a meaningful statistical category for starting pitchers over the past three seasons, and if Corbin’s not the worst, he can see it from where he stands.
But he still gets the ball every fifth day for this outfit, and the check with all those zeros still clears straight into his bank account. So why not be something of a tone-setter? Exiting last season, the entire organization identified a primary way it had to improve its pitching: Have the confidence and courage to throw the ball over the plate. Throw strike one. Don’t walk guys.
Corbin’s torch-bearing in that regard: 20 hitters faced, seven first-pitch strikes, three walks and 85 pitches to get through three innings and one batter.
“Maybe not as aggressive in the zone,” he said.
Only one team in baseball allowed more runs than the Nationals in 2022. That total included 70 unearned runs. They allowed seven runs Thursday — and four were unearned. In a word: Yuck.
“These are going to be some of the growing pains,” Martinez said.
Well, then, here’s a watering can and some fertilizer. Grow.
And the sins don’t end there.
“We have to move the baseball,” Martinez said, which is code for: put it in play. Yet with one run in, one out and a runner on third in the second, Luis García struck out. The runner was stranded. With one out and a runner on third in the sixth, Alex Call struck out. The runner was stranded.
“Those are the little things we need to do,” Martinez said.
These Nats aren’t going to score very many runs. Their rotation isn’t built to rack up innings. Their bullpen may be good enough to hold a lead, but they have to get a lead to hold.
But the objective here is to have the games in May look better than the games in March and the games in August look better than the games in May. It’s to have Abrams boot a gift of a double play ball and make two throwing errors and come back Saturday locked in.
“I want the next one,” Abrams said. “I want the next one hit to me.”
That’s the right attitude. After the game, he sat alone at his locker in gym shorts and a T-shirt. There are 161 more of these ahead. There is a front office and a coaching staff who have pitched the idea that the roster is athletic and talented and just needs time.
“I’m not going to get down on these guys,” Martinez said. “I’ll tell you that.”
It was Opening Day. Let’s hope he’s able to say that in a month or four.