<
>

A memorable Opening Day for Nats

WASHINGTON -- Just when it appears that Bryce Harper has it all figured out in his transition to the major leagues, he does something to remind everyone that he's 20 years old. Like airmailing a cutoff man. Or slapping hands in the dugout so hard after a home run trot, his manager and teammates have to remind him that the post-long ball celebration isn't a contact sport.

True, Harper looks foreboding in the batter's box, but he's still just a pup in need of some veteran guidance. After he hit his second home run in two at-bats against Miami's Ricky Nolasco on Monday, Nationals fans rose en masse to request a curtain call. Harper obliged, but only after asking teammate Chad Tracy for permission.

As ridiculous as that sounds in principle, keep in mind that Harper isn't all that far removed from asking his dad if he can borrow the car keys.

"I looked at Trace and said, 'Should I do this or not?'" Harper said. "I try to look at everybody and ask. And he was like, 'Get up there. Who cares?'"

It never gets old, watching a talented young ballplayer navigate the learning curve and realize his potential on the way to bigger and better things. As a sellout crowd at Nationals Park watched Harper and pitcher Stephen Strasburg put on a wondrous display of Opening Day baseball in a 2-0 victory over the Marlins, the thought had to cross everybody's mind: Are we in for an entertaining year, or what?

Harper went deep twice and made a laser throw from left field that led to a double play in the seventh inning (even though, as he sheepishly admitted, he missed the cutoff man). Strasburg threw seven shutout innings before handing the ball to setup man Tyler Clippard, who gave it to new Nationals closer Rafael Soriano for the save. Although Strasburg struck out only three Marlins, he didn't walk a batter and retired 19 in a row after allowing a single to Juan Pierre leading off the game.

Some media members wondered aloud if the two former No. 1 draft picks weren't trying to outdo each other. They weren't alone.

"I think so,'' Clippard said. "Maybe a little bit. You have to ask them, but that's what it looked like.''

For much of his rookie year, Harper had to live down his "bad boy'' reputation and the inevitable rites of passage -- like taking a Cole Hamels fastball in the back simply because he's Bryce Harper. But something was different from the moment Harper arrived at spring training in Viera, Fla., in February. Yes, he's added some muscle, but Harper also seems calmer, more authoritative and self-assured in the batter's box. The soft stuff that proved so vexing at times last season may not be so problematic this year.

"I think he learned a lot about himself last year, just going around the league and facing different pitchers and seeing what they're trying to do to him,'' said Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein. "His pitch recognition is superior and he goes up there with a plan. He lays off pitches he doesn't want and swings at what he wants. He's very advanced for his age.''

In his first plate appearance, Harper drove a 1-0 curveball from Nolasco over the right-field fence to give the Nationals a 1-0 lead. In his next at-bat, he laid off a 2-2 splitter in the dirt to work the count full. Nolasco followed with a slider, and Harper punished it to right for home run No. 2. Then he calmly accepted high-fives from everyone in the dugout.

"I'm glad he cut it down on the second one,'' said Washington manager Davey Johnson. "My hand was still stinging from the first one. I think a lot of people's were.''

The word around the Nationals is Strasburg seems more relaxed this year now that he no longer has the pressure of a dreaded innings limit hanging over his head. He's also making some subtle changes, like trying to throw more first-pitch breaking balls for strikes and do a better job of pitching inside to lefties.

The biggest item on Strasburg's agenda is fastball command. If he can get ahead in the count, it will lead to shorter innings and keep him fresh for what the Nationals hope will be a deep run into October. Strasburg's 44.2 percent ground ball ratio last year (according to FanGraphs) was middle-of-the-pack, but he's going to try to elevate that by mixing in more two-seamers this year. If his 10 ground ball outs against Miami were any indication, he's on the right track.

"He did a great job working the zone and pitching smart,'' said Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond. "I looked up in the sixth inning and he had like 65 pitches and I thought, 'He's come a long way.' Earlier in his career, you would look up in the sixth and he would be close to 100.

"If he wants to be a workhorse, he's going to have to pitch more games like this with a lower pitch count. Putting more trust in us defensively -- that's what it's all about.''

The Nationals have a stacked roster, and those high expectations and glowing preseason predictions are resonating with the fan base. The Opening Day crowd of 45,274 was the second largest in the history of Nationals Park, which opened for business in 2008. It was surpassed only by the 45,966 fans who watched Washington lose a heartbreaker to St. Louis in the deciding game of the National League Division Series last October.

Clearly, this whole Natitude thing isn't going away anytime soon.

"D.C. is a city where there are a lot of things going on,'' said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. "For someone to come watch you, you have to make it worth their while and make it the thing to do.''

Baseball is both fun and fashionable in Washington these days. If Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg have any say in the matter, it's going to be that way for a while.