- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 3, 2014

NEW YORK – After seven endless weeks of spring training in Viera, Fla. and a successful series on the road to open the 2014 season, the Nationals finally make their debut in front of the home fans on Friday afternoon.

Washington manager Matt Williams tried his best to dampen the excitement before his team’s game against the New York Mets on Thursday afternoon at Citi Field. No reason to look ahead, after all.

“I hesitate to get ahead of myself. We’ve got a big game today,” Williams said. “We’ll start thinking about that game tomorrow on the way home – regardless win or lose today. But today’s game is most important for us.”

And so it was a happy flight back to the District following an 8-2 victory over the Mets to complete a series sweep. Ryan Zimmerman went 4-5 at the plate, tying his career high for hits, and homered, Denard Span and Jayson Werth added RBI singles in the fifth inning and Danny Espinosa doubled twice.

The Nats begin the season 3-0 for the second year in a row.

Now Williams and his players can let themselves look forward to the pomp and circumstance of a home opener in the District with a three-game series against the rival Atlanta Braves this weekend.

“It’s always fun to have home openers. Openers are fun,” Zimmerman said. “Opening on the road and then coming home kind of gives you a little buffer. Still, nothing compares to the home opener.

About the only unexpected development is the starting pitcher on the mound at Nationals Parks on Friday. It was supposed to be Tanner Roark, who made the team when Doug Fister went on the 15-day disabled list to begin the season with a strained lat muscle.

But Roark lost that honor when he was pressed into emergency duty on Thursday against New York. Scheduled starter Jordan Zimmermann took ill the night before and Roark received an early-morning phone call that he’d be the replacement.

“I just go with the flow,” Roark said. “Whatever they tell me to do, that’s what I’m here for. If they want me to pitch whenever, I’ll pitch then. It’s basically up to them. I just get the ball and go.”

He did well enough considering the short notice. Roark  pitched six innings, shaking off a rough first when the Mets scored twice. Curtis Granderson doubled home one run and Juan Lagares had a sacrifice fly.

But after that inning, Roark allowed just three more hits and a pair of walks. He retired 12 of the last 16 batters he faced, stranding two runners at second base. New York managed six hits against him and three walks, but couldn’t push home more than those two runs.

That more than made up for the fact that Roark’s parents and in-laws, heading to Washington on Thursday to watch him pitch the home opener, won’t get to do that now. Roark said his parents found out on their drive from Wilmington, Ill. Roark’s mother texted him from somewhere in Ohio after learning the news: “What happened?”

Now the question: Who starts the home opener? Zimmermann was sent home early to rest and recover after taking ill. If he can’t go, the options are limited. Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez pitched earlier this week and are unavailable. Roark stepped in on Thursday. Fister is hurt and has yet to begin a throwing program yet.

Ross Detwiler, sent to the bullpen late in spring training, was a candidate to start. But he made his season debut in relief on Thursday against New York, pitching two innings. That leaves reliever Craig Stammen as the likely starter provided Zimmermann doesn’t recover in time.

Starter Taylor Jordan, meanwhile, is unavailable because he threw a simulated game in Florida on Monday.  

“I couldn’t tell you,” Williams said when asked for an update on Zimmermann after the game. “We don’t want to send him out there with him being really sick.”

The Nats blew open Thursday’s game in the seventh inning against New York’s struggling bullpen. LaRoche smashed a two-run single off the glove of first baseman Lucas Duda. Zimmerman followed with another RBI single. Ian Desmond’s ground out scored LaRoche. Just like that the score was 7-2. LaRoche also drew a bases loaded walk in the eighth inning for another run.

“Everybody really did their part. It wasn’t really just one or two guys,” Espinosa said. “The pitching staff gave us a great opportunity to stay in games and win ball games. And then at-bats went well, off the bench, the starters, everyone had good at-bats. If you can carry that into the majority of your season, you can produce success.”