Friday, April 1, 2011, 10:54 a.m.
NATS OPENING DAY PAGE
By Mark Zuckerman
Most of the positives that have been outlined from the Nationals' 2-0 Opening Day loss to the Braves have centered around the club's solid pitching and defensive performance. It's difficult to find positives out of an offensive performance that included five hits, none of them with runners in scoring position, right?
Not so fast. The Nationals' lineup may have lagged behind the rest of the club during Thursday's loss, but it did offer a glimpse of something positive fans should become accustomed to this season: its ability to make opposing pitchers work.
Though Braves starter Derek Lowe dominated in earning the victory, the Nationals' ability to work the count and wear down the veteran right-hander forced Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez to pull him after only 5 23 innings.
By that point, Lowe (despite having allowed only three hits and two walks) had seen his pitch count skyrocket to 105. Afterward, he offered a bit of a strange explanation, insisting it had more to do with his own desire to mix up his pitches after facing the Nationals three times in his last five regular-season starts (dating to last September).
"They took a lot of pitches," Lowe told Atlanta reporters. "I didn't want to pitch the exact same way I did last time. ... It was a cat-and-mouse game."
There's a key flaw in Lowe's logic: Last September, he faced Nationals lineups that featured Nyjer Morgan, Roger Bernadina, Adam Dunn, Adam Kennedy, Willie Harris and Justin Maxwell, among others. None of those guys are around anymore.
In their place are veterans such as Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche and Rick Ankiel, guys who have shown an ability over the years to work the count.
Werth is one of the best in the game at this fine art, having led the majors in pitches seen per at-bat last season. In fact, 243 of his 652 plate appearances in 2010 reached either a 2-2 or 3-2 count.
Werth wasted no time Thursday showing off his plate patience in his first game with the Nationals. He worked the count to 2-2 against Lowe in the first inning before singling, then worked the count full in both the third and sixth innings.
"I love that," he said. "It's part of the game, and it's a big part of my game, too."
And Werth wasn't the only one doing it Thursday. Ankiel, Michael Morse, Danny Espinosa and Ryan Zimmerman (twice) all took Lowe to a full count. The end result: The Braves had to pull a dominant starting pitcher up 2-0 in the sixth inning.
Now, the Nationals didn't take full advantage of the opportunity and beat the Braves' middle relief. But they know those situations will, more often than not, favor their side.
"If you work the pitcher and you can get him out in the fifth or sixth, you've got a chance to see that sixth- and seventh-inning guy consistently," Werth said. "I think that really bodes well for you over the course of the whole season."
For much of the last decade, some of baseball's best teams have also boasted some of the game's most-patient lineups. The Yankees and Red Sox, in particular, have preached the idea of taking pitches and driving up the opposing starter's pitch count.
Perhaps the Nationals are starting to catch on, thanks in no small part to the offseason addition of Werth. It may not have produced a win on Opening Day, but it should put them in better position to win on a daily basis the rest of the season.
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at email@example.com and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.