The Washington Times - April 1, 2013, 09:53PM

The way Major League Baseball sets the schedule up, teams that will have to deal with the possibility of bad weather get a day off built in for the day that follows Opening Day. This is mostly “in case of emergency,” but it always seems like the day is needed anyway.

A winter’s worth of anticipation and six weeks of meaningless games under the Florida sun usually make the opener an emotional affair. Monday’s matinee at Nationals Park, in which Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg stole the show, was no exception.

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So the Nationals are off today, giving a day for Nationals fans to catch their breath after a rousing opening performance.

Without further ado, the first “thoughts, observations and leftovers” of the season…

– There’s a lot of conversation this morning about why Davey Johnson pulled Stephen Strasburg after seven innings with his pitch count at just 80. The general question is something like: isn’t this supposed to be the year the Nationals stop babying Strasburg?

Both Johnson and Strasburg said if it had been any other day, any other start this season, the manager likely would’ve let his ace continue on. Maybe even for a complete game. But it wasn’t. Johnson cited the draining nature of Opening Day for why he opted to turn to his bullpen, but he could’ve also put the onus on needing to keep his relievers sharp with what will amount to one game in four days. 

The Nationals don’t plan to limit Strasburg in the same way they did in 2012. That is over. But Johnson hasn’t hid the fact that he is still going to treat him the way he would any other 24-year-old pitcher who has less than 300 innings of major league experience.

It seems the real test for how the Nationals will handle Strasburg this season will come in his next start, or the one after, or whenever it is that the right-hander dominates again the way he did on Monday with such a low pitch count and no signs of fatigue. Is he allowed to go further then? Do they let him perhaps even complete a game? If not, then there may be more cause for torches and pitchforks.

One other point regarding Strasburg: the way he handled the Marlins on Monday stands in interesting contrast to the pitcher who debuted against the Pittsburgh Pirates back in 2010. Both were dominant performances. But instead of double-digit strikeouts, on Monday Strasburg had only three. Shortstop Ian Desmond said it best when he told of how he looked up at the scoreboard in the sixth inning and saw Strasburg at 65 pitches.

“I was like ‘Wow, he’s come a long way,’” Desmond said. “I think early on last year, early on in his career, you’d look up in the sixth inning and he’s close to 100 pitches. If he wants to be the workhorse that he is, he’s going to have to pitch more games like this where he’s going later into the game with a lower pitch count.”

– Monday was also the first game as part of the home team in D.C. for Dan Haren and Denard Span. Haren said he’d put the atmosphere at Nationals Park up against any he’s been in, as far as Opening Day environment goes. Span enjoyed it as well.

“It was electric,” Span said. “I’ve been a part of some loud games, played in a lot of big stadiums and big crowds, but today was extra loud. Between the fans, obviously Bryce brought them to their feet. It was a loud day.”

Span said he hasn’t been able to get enough work in center field at Nationals Park to say the he truly feels comfortable with all of the angles just yet, but he’ll get there. The Nationals had a workout on Sunday and an exhibition game on Friday and Span used both batting practice sessions to work on that while shagging fly balls. 

“I’m just going to learn as I go,” Span said. “I take my shagging pretty serious during batting practice. I definitely want to be comfortable on my home field.”

Span was also 1-for-4 in his D.C. debut and happy to get that first hit out of the way. 

– One play in the Nationals’ win over the Marlins that might’ve gone overlooked was Ryan Zimmerman’s diving stab in the first inning of Placido Polanco’s hard bouncer. At that point, Juan Pierre stood on third base (the only hit Strasburg would give up until the seventh inning) and the right-hander had thrown 11 pitches in the first. 

Zimmerman’s impressive defensive play, in which he dove to his left to nab the ball that seemed certain to skip into left field and score the Marlins’ first run before leaping to his feet and tossing the ball sidearm to first base for the out, not only got the Nationals out of the first inning without surrendering a run but also saved Strasburg from requiring more pitches to get out of the frame.

The Nationals’ third baseman’s throwing motion will likely continue to be scrutinized as the season goes on and he continues to feel more comfortable with it. But it is plays like Monday’s that remind everyone why he’s considered such a talent defensively, regardless of how his throwing is going.

– There were a few questions about why Johnson opted to go with Tyler Clippard for the eighth inning on Monday, instead of Drew Storen. One thing Johnson is going to do a lot more of this season is tailor his matchups more specifically. Without a short lefty in the bullpen, Johnson will decided which right-hander matches up better with an opposing team’s bench, generally.

On Monday Johnson went with Clippard because he figured if even one batter got on, Greg Dobbs would be up to pinch hit. Dobbs was 1-for-7 in his career against Clippard and 3-for-5 against Storen. 

“I had a lot of good choices,” Johnson said. “But that part of the lineup, I took the guy that had the best success against their number one pinch-hitter, Dobbs. And that was Clip. Simple as that.”

– Haren threw an extended bullpen session on Monday, his attempt to stay sharp and in shape for his start on Friday in Cincinnati.

The veteran right-hander said he’ll probably throw one more (which would make three total since his last spring start), a more normal length, as his final tuneup before the start.

– Christian Garcia played catch on Sunday and Monday after getting the green light from the doctors to resume throwing, the partially torn tendon in his right wrist showing a good amount of healing. Garcia will continue to ramp up, essentially going back to the start of spring training, from this point on. He will remain with the team in D.C. through Thursday and then head back to Florida to continue the process.

– This has nothing to do with anything, but Ross Detwiler and Ian Desmond bought Kurt Suzuki a Bonsai tree. It resides in the top cubby of Suzuki’s locker.

Suzuki, who took the tree out to the dugout Monday morning to get it some sun, absolutely loved the tree — the product of one otherwise uneventful evening on Amazon.com for Detwiler.

They gave it to Suzuki as a gift and the catcher said it’s supposed to bring peace, tranquility and strength.