Thursday, March 31, 2011, 3:43 p.m.
Updated at 7:14 p.m.
NATIONALS PAGE NATIONALS VIDEOS
By Mark Zuckerman
The season was barely 15 minutes old, and plenty among the announced crowd of 39,055 at Nationals Park hadn't even settled into their seats when the home team faced its first real test of 2011.
Already trailing the Atlanta Braves 1-0, the Washington Nationals had just seen Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman produce back-to-back singles, putting runners on the corners with one out and the heart of the lineup due up.
The whole notion of having Werth bat second is predicated upon the idea that Zimmerman and the guys behind him can take advantage of their opportunities with men on base. As much attention is thrust upon Werth and Zimmerman, the Nationals know what they're going to get from those two stars. The real unknown is what they're going to get from Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse and Rick Ankiel in the 4-, 5- and 6-holes.
So when LaRoche and Morse squandered that first-inning opportunity Thursday afternoon -- popping out and grounding out, respectively -- you couldn't help but wonder if this was an omen of things to come. The Nationals would get only a couple more legitimate scoring opportunities, but none as good as that first one, and they never did push a man across the plate during a 2-0 loss.
"We had some chances to break the game open," Werth said. "That game could have been a lot different."
Throughout the Nationals clubhouse, credit was given to Braves starter Derek Lowe, who scattered three hits and two walks over 5 23 sparkling innings and looked very much deserving of his third consecutive Opening Day assignment.
"That's probably the best I've seen him pitch in a long time," Werth said of the 37-year-old sinkerballer.
But this wasn't the last time the Nationals will face an experienced, front-line starter this season, especially in a stacked NL East that also boasts Atlanta's Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson, Florida's Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez and Philadelphia's fearsome foursome of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.
There are going to be plenty more tightly contested pitchers' duels over the course of the next six months. And if the Nationals want to hold their own against those premier starters, they're going to have to figure out ways to scratch out a couple of runs whenever they get an opportunity.
"Our whole division, the pitching's going to be like that," said Zimmerman, who went 1-for-3 with a walk. "That's why we've been stressing defense and baserunning, when we can take an extra base and put a man in scoring position. 'Cause it's hard to string together hits against guys like that."
The mood in the Nationals clubhouse late Thursday afternoon remained upbeat in large part because of the way they played fundamentally sound baseball on a raw, 41-degree day on South Capitol Street. They made a number of sterling plays in the field, from LaRoche snagging a fourth-inning grounder and flipping to first from his knees, to Werth making a pair of sliding catches in right field, to second baseman Danny Espinosa nearly turning what would have been a fabulous 5-4-3 double play in the seventh.
Washington's baserunning was crisp. The pitching staff, top to bottom, was efficient and effective. If you're going to lose on Opening Day, this was about as best-case scenario as it gets.
"If you hit the panic button after the first game, you're going to have trouble," Espinosa said. "No reason to. It's the first game. Of course, we want to win. But we did good things. We ran the bases well. We played great defense. And Livo pitched great."
Hernandez really did. The 36-year-old put his team in an early 2-0 hole after allowing those back-to-back hits in the first and then a solo homer to Jason Heyward in the second. But he dominated from that point, retiring 15 Braves in a row with his unique arsenal of slow breaking balls followed by even slower breaking balls, including a 60-mph curveball to Dan Uggla in the fourth that would have made Bugs Bunny proud.
"Trust me, there's not going to be too many games like this: three hits or four hits or five hits," Hernandez said. "We're going to win a lot of games. If I pitch like that, I'm going to give the team a chance to win a lot of games."
But it's still going to come down to the lineup's ability to make the most of its opportunities. The Nationals had six plate appearances with runners in scoring position Thursday. They went 0-for-6.
Three of those outs were made by LaRoche and Morse, though Morse did smoke a groundball right at shortstop Alex Gonzalez with two on and two out in the sixth.
"I hope I get a lot of those opportunities," Morse said. "I felt like I got a good pitch to hit today. They just kept the ball down. All their pitchers kept the ball down all day. I hit it hard. I wish it could have gotten through the infield."
One game is too soon to start talking about lineup changes, though manager Jim Riggleman did acknowledge he won't wait forever before contemplating it.
"We'll just kind of get a feel for it, see if we feel everybody is comfortable in those slots," he said. "Today, I don't know it was going to make a difference who hit where the way Lowe was pitching."
Fair enough. Just hope Riggleman and Co. aren't saying the same thing Saturday about Tommy Hanson, or Sunday about Tim Hudson, or next week about Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee or ... well, you get the idea.
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.