Nats stars shine brightest on Opening Day

Nats stars shine brightest on Opening Day
April 1, 2013, 7:15 pm
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They have become the two most prominent faces of the Nationals, and really, two of the most prominent faces of baseball despite the fact each is in his young 20s and combined they've only played 184 games in the major leagues.

On a team loaded with talent and expected by everyone to do great things this year, Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg still manage to stand out above the rest. They alone can't -- and won't -- lead the Nationals to October glory. But they're certainly capable of taking over any given ballgame and leading their team to victory.

And when the stage is brighter than normal, as it was on Opening Day on South Capitol Street, they sure do have a knack for rising to the occasion.

"Even though they're young guys, they have experience at the big-league level," reliever Tyler Clippard said. "With those two things in combination with their ability, it gives us as a team a lot of confidence that they're putting the 'W' up on their backs and not any other uniforms. I'm glad they're on our team."

So were the 45,274 fans who crammed themselves into Nationals Park this afternoon and witnessed the closest thing to Opening Day perfection they're likely to ever see in person. Strasburg: Seven scoreless innings. Harper: Two home runs. The Nationals: A convincing, 2-0 victory over the Marlins to get perhaps the most-anticipated season in Washington baseball history off to a flying start.

Remember those Opening Days of yore, when the Nationals would send John Patterson or Odalis Perez to the mound and hope for the best, when Austin Kearns or Jose Guillen was the cleanup hitter by default, when the loudest ovation during player introductions was likely to come from Phillies fans cheering the visiting team? Those days are no more.

"Things have changed quite a bit," said Ryan Zimmerman, the only player remaining who was on the Opening Day roster in 2008.

They have indeed, and though plenty of people are responsible for that, the two biggest ones were front-and-center in this one.

The crowd was already buzzing by the time Zimmerman made a diving snag of Placido Polanco's hard smash to end the top of the first inning, saving Strasburg from surrendering an early run to the Marlins. And when Harper stepped to the plate moments later for his first at-bat of the season, every eye in the ballpark was glued to the second-year outfielder, not wanting to miss anything special.

Harper immediately provided that special moment, turning on Ricky Nolasco's 1-0 curveball and sending the ball flying into the right field bleachers. One swing. One home run.

"I knew way before the game he wasn't going to be fazed about anything," manager Davey Johnson said. "He, especially, he's totally committed to having a good year. I mean, he had a phenomenal spring. Best spring maybe I've seen anyone ever have. And continuing on."

Harper closed out his spring training on an absolute tear, with an 11-for-11 stretch during the final week to raise his batting average to a Grapefruit League-best .478. Spring stats rarely translate into regular-season success. But as intense as Harper was during his seven weeks in Florida, there seemed reason to believe there might be a correlation.

"I wasn't sure," he said. "I was just trying to go up there, have good ABs, square things up and not really care about what comes."

Harper's first homer gave the Nationals an early lead and allowed Strasburg to settle in, which the 24-year-old ace did. After surrendering a single to Juan Pierre to open the day, he retired 19 consecutive batters, only three on strikeouts.

Instead of trying to overpower the Marlins lineup, Strasburg merely tried to induce groundball outs, which he did in spades (10 of those 19 outs came on the ground).

"I noticed in spring training early on that they don't want to get to two strikes," he said. "I'll take the quick outs any day of the week."

By the time Strasburg finally surrendered another hit in the top of the seventh, Harper had already stolen the show for himself. After battling Nolasco to a full count in the bottom of the fourth, he walloped a 3-2 slider and rounded the bases to a thunderous roar, having just become the youngest player ever to homer twice on Opening Day.

"The first one was very cool," he said. "I think being able to share that with these fans and my family and this organization, this team, was a great moment, great experience. The second one, I didn't really take full advantage of it, you could say. It was over, and I'm done. I think the first one really caught me. I was really excited about that one."

Harper may not have been caught up in the moment on the second one, but the crowd certainly was. They serenaded their young superstar until he was coaxed out of the dugout by teammate Chad Tracy for a rare, Opening Day curtain call.

"What he does so well for a young kid is keep things in perspective," Zimmerman said. "He doesn't get caught up in the moment. He doesn't try to do too much. He stays within his game and who he is, no matter what. I think that's a very important mentality to have at this level. It's easy to get out of your game when you get excited. He definitely does not do that."

Try as he might to really do something spectacular and homer for the third time on Opening Day -- a feat done only by George Bell (1988), Tuffy Rhodes (1994) and Dmitri Young (2005) -- Harper couldn't quite get all of a Nolasco fastball in the bottom of the sixth and flied out to left. He fouled out in his final at-bat, leaving his batting average at a measly .500, his slugging percentage a scant 2.000.

Strasburg, meanwhile, was cruising along himself. Though he got into a bit of a jam in the seventh, putting runners on the corners with one out, he was helped out again by his defense, with Harper firing to the plate to prevent Giancarlo Stanton from tagging up, then Wilson Ramos deftly catching Polanco too far off first base and igniting a 7-2-3-4-2 double play to end the inning.

At that point, Strasburg had thrown only 80 pitches, remarkable efficiency for a hurler who regularly reaches 100 pitches by the sixth. On any other day, he might have been allowed to continue, but on this day Johnson erred on the side of caution and turned to his bullpen for the final six outs.

"I didn't think he was tired, even at the end of the game," Johnson said. "But again, first time out, Opening Day, gave me seven solid innings. I'm not pushing the envelope. I never have, never will."

Not that the Nationals bullpen provided any reason to second-guess the manager. Clippard, though he labored a tad, completed a scoreless eighth. Rafael Soriano then entered for his first appearance with the franchise and announced his presence with authority, retiring the side and striking out Chris Coghlan and Stanton with a wicked array of pitches to notch the save.

The entire roster gathered at the center of the diamond to exchange high-fives and celebrate a season-opening victory. There will be plenty more of these over the next six months, and everyone in that scrum will contribute in some way.

But on this day, there were two stars. The two brightest stars on a team full of them. The two stars that might just carry the Nationals to a truly special moment later this fall.

"You couldn't really have scripted it too much better," Clippard said. "Obviously, offensively, I'm sure these guys would have loved to have scored 10 runs, but that's not going to happen every night. With Harp getting in there with a couple and Stephen pitching the way he did, it was really fun being there. And a good way to start the season."