We had plenty of coverage for you from the Nationals home opener on Thursday, from the wild pitch walk-off that Ryan Zimmerman called one of his “worst games,” to Ian Desmond starting the season on a ridiculous tear, the Nationals pitching giving them a chance to win every night, the $59, eight-pound Strasburger and Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner addressing the team’s expected spring training move.
But, as there almost always is, there were a few things we didn’t get to. So without further ado, a few thoughts, observations and leftovers…
– Gio Gonzalez’s Nationals debut didn’t go the way he’d planned. The strike zone in Chicago that day didn’t agree with him or Matt Garza (and several players, coaches and other observers have mentioned it since) and while Gonzalez maintained he attacked the Cubs last Saturday exactly the way he wanted, the results were not in his favor.
He didn’t have to give a reason for anything on Thursday after he opened Nationals Park and welcomed himself to D.C. with one of the more impressive pitching performances you’ll find. In seven innings, Gonzalez gave up two hits and walked no one. The book on Gonzalez, of course, was that he led the American League in walks in 2011. You take that wildness, the general consensus was, because of what his left arm can do otherwise.
“He’s got a great feel for the ball,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “He’s got a curveball that’s unhittable, fastball’s live, locating. I heard that he was a little wild. I haven’t seen indications of that. He’s been around the plate. Even his misses are close.”
Told that Thursday was the first start since Aug. 1, 2010 that he hadn’t walked a single batter, Gonzalez responded with a dumbfounded look, and then burst out laughing. “That’s a great stat,” he said.
Gonzalez was the new kid in town when he arrived in Viera for spring training and while his outgoing personality didn’t exactly leave him sitting in the corner by himself, it did take him a while to warm up and feel as though this was his team. Those days are over.
Gonzalez was the first one over the railing on Thursday when Ryan Zimmerman came home to score the winning run. “Infectious,” Zimmerman called him.
“He’s so much fun to play behind and have on your team,” he added.
It was difficult to wipe the smile off of Gonzalez’s face Thursday, especially after he dropped his first major league hit into left field and then took as entertaining a trip around the bases as the Nationals have seen in a while. He got thrown out on a force at home plate (“Goodyear has not sponsored me yet. I think I’ve got to take those ankle weights off.”) but the Nationals got two runs in the inning anyway.
He didn’t get the win, but it was still a good day.
“(The fans) welcomed me with open arms here,” Gonzalez said. “I think the fans showed a lot of love and what better to do than give it back? I give all the credit to my defense and offense. Bullpen did a great job. I think we’re showing signs of great life here.”
– Craig Stammen was called on to pitch the 10th inning on Thursday. He did not disappoint. It would be tough to top Gonzalez for “impressive pitching performance of the day” but Stammen was a close second.
Stammen threw 10 pitches. He struck out all three batters he faced.
He got Willie Harris on a slider. He got Drew Stubbs on a curveball. He got Zack Cozart on a fastball. Inning over.
“I had really good stuff today,” Stammen admitted. “I felt good. I was throwing the ball pretty much wherever I wanted. Some days you have that, and then, like the other day in New York I did not have that. That’s the life of the bullpen, we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
Stammen and Tom Gorzelanny have done an exceptional job early this season (as has most of the Nationals’ bullpen) in filling their roles as long relievers with authority and not viewing it solely as a mop-up job. Stammen said a lot of that credit goes to the way Johnson handles the bullpen as a whole and the way he keeps them aware of when they’ll most likely be pitching.
– There were a lot of readers asking why Zimmerman wasn’t playing closer to the line in the ninth inning to protect against doubles.
Here is Zimmerman’s explanation:
“I play kind of middle. I was up a little bit but you could play back there and you get a slow roller then the guy’s safe at home and you have the winning run one second.
“There’s so many situations and possibilities right there that you kind of just have to go with what you’re feeling. I wish I was feeling that I could have scooted two steps to the right before that. I still should have made the play. (Brad Lidge) threw the ball well and they got some well-placed hits.”
– Did you know that Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond is leading the major leagues with hits with 13? Desmond, the Nationals red-hot leadoff man, was 3-for-5 on Thursday bringing his season average to .406 and his on-base percentage to .441.
It’s only been seven games, but through the first seven games last season, Desmond had six hits in 28 at-bats. He was hitting .214, hadn’t walked at all and had struck out six times.
Desmond, and second baseman Danny Espinosa (four hits, seven walks in the first seven games), have been doing their jobs at the top of the lineup to get on base. The Nationals, who lost cleanup hitter Michael Morse until at least June with a lat strain, just haven’t been there with as many big hits as they should. And they know it.
“We definitely aren’t taking advantage of the opportunities we’ve had,” Zimmerman said.
In the last two games alone, the Nationals have gone 3-for-21 with runners in scoring position and left 24 men on base. They’re getting them on, they’re just not getting them in.
“(We) just need to relax and just get the guy in from third,” said veteran Mark DeRosa. “I think sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves to knock everybody in instead of just concentrating on passing the baton.”
There is a feeling, though, that they’re getting closer. And if they continue to get the runners on, eventually they’ll get them in.
“In a sense you’re happy because you won but in the same sense you’re kind of upset that we could have walked away with a blowout,” Desmond said after the Nationals’ victory on Wednesday. “It’s good to see that guys are just missing pitches. It’s just a matter of one grain down, difference between being a homer or a double or a pop up. We’re close, and the fact that we’re winning and close is good.”
“We feel like we can score,” Zimmerman said Thursday. “(With our pitching), it’s nice to know if you score four or five runs a day that you have a really good chance to win. And if you go off and score seven, eight, nine, 10 runs you have a great chance to win. It’s a very talented team. We just need to get better and learn from our mistakes and it could be a fun season.”