For Bryce Harper, two homers in his first two at-bats, and even some ”M-V-P!” chants. For Stephen Strasburg, 19 consecutive outs during one stretch of seven scoreless innings.
And for the defending NL East champion Washington Nationals, a 2-0 victory over the Miami Marlins on Monday in Game 1 of a season lame-duck manager Davey Johnson declared months ago should be defined as ”World Series or bust.”
”You couldn’t draw it up any better. No question. And to have the two youngsters go out, do what they did? … Let Harper and Stras go to work. They didn’t need us,” Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche said.
Harper, the 20-year-old left fielder coming off NL Rookie of the Year honors, hit solo shots over the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field off Ricky Nolasco in the first and fourth innings. He sprinted around the bases both times, and after his second trip, he climbed back out of the dugout for a curtain call, pumping his right fist.
It was Harper’s first taste of opening day; he began last year in the minors before getting called up.
”It was a pretty special moment,” Harper said. ”If I was 0 for 4, or 4 for 4, it wouldn’t have mattered to me. Just going out there having some fun on opening day for the first time.”
For Strasburg (1-0), this marked the start of what should be his first full season in the majors, with zero pitch or inning limits. The All-Star ace, shut down before the stretch run in September and division series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012, was dominant against a trade-depleted Marlins lineup that features Giancarlo Stanton and little else.
The right-hander went seven innings, matching his career high, and allowed three hits. Pitching to contact more than in the past, Strasburg used his electric, high-90s mph stuff for three strikeouts and did not walk a batter.
Harper and Strasburg are only the second pair of No. 1 overall picks in baseball’s June amateur draft to start an opening-day game for the team that chose them, and the 100-loss seasons in 2008 and 2009 that gave Washington the right to those selections seem quite distant nowadays.
Before the game, the Nationals celebrated their 98-win 2012 by unveiling a sign atop the outfield scoreboard that proclaims them ”NL East Division Champions.” They also honored Harper for his rookie honor, Johnson for his NL Manager of the Year award, and recipients of Gold Glove and Silver Slugger trophies.
A regular-season Nationals Park-record crowd of 45,274 roared during player introductions and kept on clapping and yelling through the game.
”They really were loud and crazy,” Harper said. ”Hopefully they’re going to be like that all year.”
They gave Harper a standing ovation when he stepped to the plate in the sixth inning for his third at-bat against Nolasco (0-1). Ever unpredictable, Harper squared up to bunt, taking a ball, and wound up with a flyout to left.
He hit a curveball for his first homer, a slider for his second.
”Didn’t make the best pitches to him, and he didn’t miss `em. That’s what hitters do,” said Nolasco, who gave up two runs and three hits in six innings, with five strikeouts and two walks.
Juan Pierre led off the game by singling to center off Strasburg, and that was all the Marlins could muster until the seventh inning. That’s when Stanton – who else, on a team with a payroll under $45 million – doubled to left, ending the streak of 19 plate appearances, 19 outs for Miami.
Placido Polanco followed with an infield single, putting runners on the corners. The next batter, Rob Brantly, hit a fly to Harper in left. Harper threw home, but Stanton didn’t go. Instead, Polanco strayed off first base, and wound up getting caught in a rundown. Eventually, Stanton did try to score, but he was thrown out for an odd-as-can-be double play officially scored 7-2-3-4-2.
With some sprinkles falling, and Strasburg done after 80 pitches, 52 for strikes, Johnson turned to his bullpen, considered a strength of the team last year until blowing a two-run lead in the ninth inning against the Cardinals in Game 5.
On Monday, Tyler Clippard came on for the eighth and worked around a walk. New closer Rafael Soriano, signed as a free agent after replacing an injured Mariano Rivera for the Yankees last season, came on with a perfect ninth and struck out two.
He showed Nationals fans his typical save celebration, too, untucking his jersey after pointing to the sky.
Notes: The biggest crowd in Nationals Park history was the 45,966 for the final playoff game against St. Louis in October. … In Harper’s fourth at-bat, Marlins 1B Casey Kotchman leaned over a dugout railing to make a nice catch of a foul pop. … Nolasco dominated the Nationals in his last two starts against them last year, with two complete-game shutouts in Marlins victories.