- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2011

First there was the curve, a devastating 68-mph hammer Livan Hernandez dropped on Nate McLouth in the third inning, one of 15 straight batters Hernandez would retire from the second to the seventh inning.

Then there was the diving stop by Adam LaRoche on a shot to the first-base side by Brian McCann, the tumbling catches by Jayson Werth on two sinking liners into right field and the crisp infield defense that turned one double play late and almost completed another a few innings earlier.

With all the hoopla this offseason surrounding the Nationals’ revamped lineup, the pitching and defense did not fail them in a 2-0 Opening Day loss to the Braves on Thursday; their offense did.

The Nationals were baffled by Derek Lowe for 5⅔ innings on a raw, frigid day at Nationals Park, and they were largely unable to generate anything else off the parade of relievers who followed.

But there were signs of progress for a team that is just one full season removed from two 100-loss campaigns: The Nats didn’t commit an error and held a tough Braves lineup to two hits after the second inning.

“We played a great game,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “We lost 2-0. We have nothing to be upset about. You can’t get mad at any part of the game; they just beat us.”

“Once we get going here during the season, I think we’re going to open a lot of people’s eyes,” said Tyler Clippard, one of four Nationals relievers who combined to shut out the Braves over the final three innings.

“We’re going to really be a totally different ballclub,” Clippard added. “Over the last two years, we [haven’t been] a good defensive team, and we are now. It’s going to be fun, especially for us pitchers.”

After the Braves reached Hernandez early, McCann singling home a run in the first following a Chipper Jones double and Jason Heyward hitting a solo homer to center field to leadoff the second, the final seven innings of baseball were as clean as the Nationals could have asked for.

And that started with Hernandez, who broke out two more strategic curveballs in the fourth to strike out Dan Uggla and Heyward and had only reached the 77-pitch mark when he was pulled after allowing the first two batters of the seventh to reach base.

“He’s got a good curveball,” said catcher Ivan Rodriguez. “He’s got a hard one, and he’s got a slow one. He threw a very slow one to Uggla, and the other one was [harder], but that’s why he’s such a good pitcher.”

Hernandez made just one mistake all game, on the slider left up to Heyward in the second that was intended to be low and inside. It was a ball Hernandez wanted the Braves’ young right fielder to foul off. He deposited it in the center field seats instead.

That was the extent of it. There were no lazy, loafing fly balls to the outfield that went untracked, no routine infield grounders bobbled beyond repair. On a day when the Nationals’ top three batters — Ian Desmond, Werth and Zimmerman — combined to go 3-for-12 (0-for-8 with a walk after the first inning) and the entire team hit just eight balls out of the infield all afternoon, the Nationals’ silver lining was in the field.

It was an encouraging sign for a squad that committed a National League-high 127 errors last season and allowed more runs (742) than all but four other N.L. clubs.

“If you’re getting consistent defense, consistent pitching, you’re going to give your team a chance to win every single day,” said second baseman Danny Espinosa, one of only two Nationals with a multi-hit afternoon, going 2-for-3 with a double in the seventh.

“The offense is going to come and go, and when it’s there, we’ll win.”



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