Good (very early) morning from the Fort Lauderdale airport where it was 77 degrees when I left the hotel this morning at 3:45. Something tells me New York won’t be greeting me as fondly.
The Nationals will participate in their second Opening Day of the season later this afternoon when they help open Citi Field for the first time in 2011. They’ll do so having escaped Florida with a much-needed victory Thursday night, avoiding the sweep when Adam LaRoche broke a 3-3 tie with a decisive two-run home run in the top of the 11th inning.
We’re only six games in to the season, so it’s tough to call anything a “must win” but suffice it to say that the Nationals were extremely happy to avoid the sweep, and even happier to do so in a game where they were able to get to Marlins ace Josh Johnson.
So while we wait for Jordan Zimmermann to make his second start of the season this afternoon against Mets right-hander R.A. Dickey, here are a few observations from the Nationals first six games:
— The Nationals may not have a “closer” but they have three guys who can certainly get the job done. It’s become obvious the first few games that Sean Burnett is the guy they’d like to go to if there’s a save sitiuation to be had, and rightfully so. Burnett has been phenomenal since last year and he’s done nothing to prove that while he’s a self-described “soft-tossing lefty” he can’t handle the pressure of the ninth inning. That being said, Thursday night, the Nationals bullpen put up six straight scoreless innings and both Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen were throwing obscene numbers of strikes. Through four innings of work combined, the two threw 40 total pitches and 32 of them were strikes. That’s not to overlook the work of Todd Coffey, who threw a 1-2-3 10th inning one night after allowing a run and getting ejected on his way off the mound. If the bullpen continues to produce outings like it did Thursday night, the Nationals will be in a lot of ballgames.
— They’ve got to get better at avoiding, as Jayson Werth called it, the “one detrimental moment.” The Nationals have been in almost every game they’ve played but have made costly errors that have cost them a chance at walking away with the win. Tuesday night it was Werth’s bobble of a pop up in shallow right field, for example. Thursday it very well could have been Danny Espinosa attempting to steal third base on his own in the 10th inning, representing the go-ahead run, and getting caught. Luckily LaRoche’s homer made it something of a moot point and just a mistake that everyone could learn from. Still, over the course of the Nationals’ first four losses there seems to always be one “detrimental moment” that could have been avoided and, perhaps, the game’s outcome reversed.
— Their patience at the plate will eventually be rewarded. The results haven’t really shown it, but the Nationals have been doing an extremely good job of driving the opposing pitcher’s counts up. Only one starter this season has gone more than six innings against them (Tim Hudson on Sunday) and they forced Johnson from the game Thursday night after just six with a pitch count into the 90s — and that was after he was perfect through the first three innings. Jayson Werth prides himself on seeing a lot of pitches, as do a lot of the Nationals this year, and that is rippling through the lineup. Sure, the Nationals can just as easily get baffled by an opposing team’s bullpen, but would you rather face a team’s ace like Johnson for eight innings or be able to give someone else your best shot for two of those?
— Their stats with runners in scoring position are not pretty. The Nationals are not having a problem getting on base. They are 7-for-50 with RISP this season and left 24 men on base in the last three games alone. It doesn’t take a math wizard to figure out that’s eight runs per game they could have brought in and weren’t able to capitalize. That being said, Ian Desmond, who was 0-for-13 to begin the season, went 6-for-9 in the final two games of the series in Florida, getting on base in front of Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman. If that keeps up, he should get driven in fairly often. Another encouraging sign where their RISP stats are conerned is that both Werth and LaRoche hit their first home runs of the season Thursday night and, for Werth, it was his first RBI. LaRoche getting hot would be extremely beneficial to the Nationals lineup considering how often Werth, Zimmerman and now Desmond are getting on base in front of him. The same could be said for Michael Morse who is 2-for-17 to begin the season.
Be back with more from New York in a few hours.