Some baseball openers don’t reveal much of anything about the season ahead. Others, however, offer a clue or two. So it was with the Nationals’ 2-0 loss to the Braves on Thursday down on South Capitol Street. It just seemed like the kind of game the Nats will be playing all season in the pitching-rich National League East: a low-scoring, error-free affair that turns on a pitch here and an at-bat there.
Or rather, it seemed like the kind of game they hope to be playing.
As Ryan Zimmerman put it, “If we can win over 50 percent of these games, we’ll have a good year. If we don’t, we’ll have a bad year.”
This year’s Nationals are better built to play these kinds of games. They’re stronger defensively at several positions and realize that in a division with the Phillies and Braves - and such pitchers as Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Tim Hudson, Josh Johnson and Johan Santana - they can’t give away runs as extravagantly as they have in the past. So, among other maneuverings, they signed right fielder Jayson Werth and first baseman Adam LaRoche and made young Danny Espinosa the second baseman - as much for their gloves as their bats.
Werth and LaRoche were quick to flash those gloves Thursday -Werth making a pair of sliding/diving catches and LaRoche laying out to snare a grounder. Unfortunately for the Nats, those Web Gems didn’t have as much impact as they might have because Derek Lowe, another of the NL East’s aces, shut them down for 5 2/3 innings (before his able bullpen took over). Lowe’s sinker was working so well that the home team hit only four balls out of the infield against him (and just eight on the day).
Some would take that as a sign the Nationals might be a little light in the lumber department. And, let’s face it, they could use a few more bats. But it’s a bit early to jump to conclusions. The temperature, after all, was 41 degrees, and the Braves (two hits, no runs after the second inning) hardly knocked down the fences themselves against ever-resourceful Livan Hernandez.
“I couldn’t really feel my toes out there,” Tyler Clippard said of his seventh-inning relief stint. “Fortunately, I could feel the seams on the baseball.”
Still, it bears noting that Jim Riggleman had Rick Ankiel try to steal second base with two outs in the fourth inning, and no one has ever confused Ankiel (10 career SBs) with Rickey Henderson. A manager doesn’t do that out of strength. He does it because the bottom of his order - Espinosa aside - is pretty much a wasteland.
But again, expect a lot of the Nationals’ games this season to be like this. And feel free to be encouraged by this first snapshot of Werth and LaRoche. In addition to their fielding, each got a hit - no small accomplishment on an afternoon when the Nats had only five (and just one, Espinosa’s double, for extra bases).
It’s hard to imagine Werth ever living up to his $126 million contract - unless he suddenly, at the age of 31, turns into a composite of Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente. But that doesn’t mean he can’t make the Nationals better in any number of ways. In fact, had the conditions been drier, he might have had an assist Thursday to go with his two acrobatic catches.
In the first inning, the Braves’ Chipper Jones hit a ball down the line, and Werth was on it quickly. When Jones tried to stretch it to a double, Werth had a chance to show off his arm. “I thought I had a shot at him,” he said. “But the ball kinda squirted out of my hand. It was wet when I picked it up. It was a smart play by him to know that.”
One of these days, the sun will be shining and Werth will gun the runner down. And one of these days, the Nationals will end up on the right side in a tight ballgame. They’re a better team this year, a sounder team. There’s no doubt about that. And Michael Morse is right when he says, “It’s not every day you’re going to face a pitcher who pitches like [Lowe did].”
Even so, there figure to be plenty of days like that for the Nats, the NL East being what it is. That’s why the 2011 opener, more than many openers, felt like such a preview of coming attractions.