Baseball executives spend their winters dreaming of warmer days when everything comes together for their clubs, when the pieces they compiled click and a 25-man roster appears worthy of a run at the World Series. They all bring those fantasies to Opening Day, when hope springs at stadiums around the country, only to have them smashed soon after because nothing goes as planned over a 162-game marathon.
But teams can dream, and the Washington Nationals saw a variation of the blueprint they believe can finally get them beyond the National League Division Series in six months come to fruition Monday afternoon in their season-opening 4-2 win over the Miami Marlins at Nationals Park.
There was a healthy Stephen Strasburg on the mound shutting down an opposing lineup over seven innings. There was Bryce Harper crushing a home run, showing that his 2015 form could resurface. There was Adam Lind, Washington’s last-second bargain basement acquisition, clobbering a pinch-hit two-run home run with his first swing in a Nationals uniform, which solicited the first curtain call of his life. There was Adam Eaton, the center fielder who cost three intriguing pitching prospects, and Trea Turner, now at shortstop, wreaking havoc atop the batting order. And then there was Blake Treinen, the nice-guy groundball specialist, pitching a perfect ninth inning in his first chance as a closer.
It came together how General Manager Mike Rizzo and his crew imagined in front of an announced sellout crowd of 42,744.
“Throughout the season you win a lot of games in a lot of different ways, and the good teams find different ways to win,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Today a lot of people did a lot of great things to come out with the win.”
Five U.S. military service members, one from each branch, threw out ceremonial first pitches to conclude an extensive 45-minute pregame extravaganza. The festivities featured an impeccably timed flyover, Max Scherzer receiving his 2016 National League Cy Young Award and television broadcaster James Brown serving as guest emcee, but no President Trump, who declined the Nationals’ invitation to throw out the first pitch.
Strasburg, not Scherzer, whose first outing is scheduled for Friday in Philadelphia, then took the mound for his fourth Opening Day start. The season’s first pitch — and Strasburg’s first in a game of consequence since walking off the mound with a pronator tear last September — was thrown at 1:05 p.m. It was a 96-mph fastball down and in to Dee Gordon. Strasburg then proceeded to plow through the Marlins’ lineup for three innings.
He pitched exclusively out of the stretch, as he intends to do all season, and the results weren’t any different from usual when he was a healthy windup artist. Pumping a fastball that occasionally touched 98 mph, the bearded right-hander needed just 85 pitches to complete seven innings . He gave up two runs on six hits and had three strikeouts without a walk before coming out to give Lind his chance at heroics.
“I was just trying to get more groundballs,” Strasburg said. “Keep attacking the strike zone. There was some balls put in play that they made some web gems behind me that kind of kept the pitch count down as well.”
Marlins starter Edinson Volquez registered the first hit off Strasburg, launching a 97-mph fastball to center field with two outs in the third. Volquez, who had singles in his first two at-bats to set a career high for hits in a game, didn’t go anywhere, though, because Strasburg got Gordon to ground out to end the frame. The Marlins instead inflicted their first damage in the fourth inning, which began with J.T. Realmuto scorching a double over Eaton’s head in center field.
Realmuto advanced to third on Christian Yelich’s flyout and scored on Giancarlo Stanton’s double. Two batters later, Marcell Ozuna scored Stanton with a single to center field to provide Volquez a two-run cushion and the right-hander, Miami’s new No. 1 starter following the tragic death of Jose Fernandez last September, didn’t squander any of it.
The Nationals had their scoring chances against Volquez but didn’t exploit them, continuing a theme from 2016 for a couple hours in 2017. Turner and Eaton, who went 1 for 2 with two walks in his Nationals debut, reached base in the first inning, only to watch Harper, Daniel Murphy and Zimmerman strike out in order. The scenario was repeated in the fourth inning, this time with Murphy and Zimmerman standing at first and second base with no outs before Jayson Werth struck out and Stephen Drew grounded into an inning-ending double play.
“Just trying too hard,” said Turner, whose first major league Opening Day included his uncle directing the pregame flyover.
Things changed when Volquez was removed after five effectively wild scoreless innings, having thrown just 82 pitches. David Phelps replaced him, and the plunge was evident immediately because Harper cracked Phelps’s 10th pitch over the wall in right-center field for a solo home run.
It was Harper’s fifth career Opening Day homer — he hit two in 2013, one in 2015 and one in 2016. No player in history has hit more Opening Day home runs before his 25th birthday.
“Just trying to make some stuff happen,” Harper said.
An inning later, with Phelps still on the mound, Lind blasted his two-run shot — his sixth career pinch-hit homer — to set the table for Sammy Solis and Treinen, who combined to retire the top of the Marlins’ order, one through six, without a hiccup to finish it off. It was the ideal way to conclude Chapter 1 of 162.
“This is a beautiful game,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said a few hours before his 22nd season as a big league skipper began. “Come ask me about it in August and it’ll be a little different.”
Maybe so, but probably not too different if the Nationals play as they did on Monday often enough.