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DALY: Nationals have feel of a winner from the start

- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Washington Nationals opened the home season Thursday with the usual bells and whistles. You had the Marine Corps Band in all its melodiousness. You had an American flag, bigger than a StrasBurger, unfurled in the outfield. You had a quartet of jets buzzing the ballpark. You had a volley of fireworks to finish the pregame festivities. And then, of course, you had baseball. Fifty-six-degree baseball.

But that was all that seemed usual about this day — basically because, well, there's nothing particularly usual about this Nationals team. This year, the roster isn't held together by Scotch tape and paper clips, by hopes and prayers. This year, for the first time since they came to Washington, the Nats have the manpower to contend for a playoff spot.

For the home opener against Cincinnati, Davey Johnson trotted out Gio Gonzalez, the club's prize offseason acquisition and the winner of 31 games the past two years. The day before, Johnson had handed the ball to Stephen Strasburg, who mesmerized the New York Mets for six innings in a 4-0 win. The day before that, Ross Detwiler had gotten the call and blanked the Mets for five innings before shutting down for the night.

This is how you position yourself for a playoff berth, by throwing quality pitching at the opposition game in and game out. And this is exactly what the Nationals haven't had ... until now. That's why Thursday felt so different, so full of hope. This isn't some aberration, this first handful of games. This is how it can be from April to October if these young arms hold up.

Here's another reason this Opening Day felt so different: Because the Nats already have taken a couple of major injury hits - to Michael Morse, their mightiest hitter last season, and Drew Storen, their 43-save closer - and nobody's panicking. Adam LaRoche has returned to the lineup at first base and replaced some of Morse's missing pop, contributing a two-run single Thursday that gave Washington a 2-0 lead. Two relievers, meanwhile, figure to share Storen's duties while he's on the mend, and both bring something substantial to the table. In the case of Henry Rodriguez, it's blinding velocity; in the case of Brad Lidge, it's six seasons with 25 saves or more.

Granted, Lidge's career has been a mixed bag — a fact underscored when the Reds touched him for a pair of runs in the ninth to tie the game at 2. But the Nationals won it in the 10th on an Alfredo Simon wild pitch that scored Ryan Zimmerman, so who's counting? As Jayson Werth said, "You've gotta take 'em when you can get 'em right now. ... This team, I think, will come together as the season goes on. The biggest thing that we lack in this clubhouse is experience. As the season goes on, I think we'll continue to gain experience and hopefully by September we'll be the type of team that's ready to win championships."

When you looked at the Nats previous years, all you saw were the holes: not enough pitching, too many outs in the order, suspect defense, etc. Now you see a club that's not only fairly solid across the board but also has the depth to withstand the occasional bump in the road — such as Morse's lingering lat strain and Storen's unforeseen elbow surgery.

"That's why we work so hard in the offseason to acquire depth at multiple positions," general manager Mike Rizzo said.

It's the pitching that changes everything, though. When your starters are shutting the other team down - or at least controlling the damage enough to keep you in games — it can make a lot of your shortcomings less debilitating. You can get by, for instance, with fewer runs. You also might not have to lean so heavily on your bullpen.

The home opener was a good example of this. Gonzalez, following Detwiler and Strasburg's lead, threw seven scoreless innings, limiting the Reds to just three base runners (two via hits, one via an error) and striking out seven. I ask you: When was the last time the Nationals had a three-game stretch in which their starters went five innings or more and didn't allow a run?

Actually, we don't have to wonder. John Dever, the Nationals' media relations maestro, got the folks at the Elias Sports Bureau to look it up. The answer: September 2005, at the end of the club's first season in D.C. In a series at San Diego, John Patterson (8), Hector Carrasco (6) and Esteban Loaiza (7) racked up 21 shutout innings in consecutive games.

Anyway, to put together a streak like that this early in the season not only gives the Nats credibility — in case anybody in the National League doubts the seriousness of their intentions — it also establishes a stability, right out of the gate, that gives the whole team confidence. And this is a team, let's not forget, that doesn't have a vast amount of experience with winning. A 5-2 start might not matter much for a more established club, but you'd better believe it matters for this one.

"Our whole team is just meshing together," Gonzalez said. "Players come in here every day with smiles on their faces and want to be around each other. The front office has done a great job of putting this team together. This is going to be a great year for us."

It's only seven games, sure, but it feels like more. Just as Thursday's game felt like the start of something bigger than just the home schedule.

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