Apr 11

Coming Home on Top

The day Nationals fans have waited for since last September is upon us: The home opener against the Cincinnati Reds. And while many liken the event to Christmas, the analogy is even more appropriate this year. Awaiting the faithful at Nationals Park on Thursday will be one of the best presents they could imagine, one with a big red bow wrapped around it: The Washington Nationals in first place.

You don’t have to look down the National League East standings to find Washington these days. The team has gone 4-2 on its season-opening road trip, taking two of three in both Chicago and New York, the latter series knocking the Mets out of the top spot in the division.

The formula for the Nats’ success has been the same one that has proven to be the hallmark of first-place teams throughout the years: Excellent pitching and timely hitting. Those two traits were on display in the last two games of the Mets series, when Ross Detwiler and Stephen Strasburg each held a potent lineup to just two hits, and the bullpen came through with a solid relief effort. Even in Monday night’s loss in the Big Apple, it was a throwing error on the part of reliever Henry Rodriguez, not his pitching, that ultimately cost the team the game.

Meanwhile, the Nats have been hitting well enough to win. Jayson Werth broke out of his early season slump in a big way, collecting four hits — his most in one game as a National — in Tuesday night’s win. He went 1-for-3 with a walk in Wednesday’s game, and has hit safely in three straight games after going hitless in his first ten at-bats this season.

Adam LaRoche has also been a crucial contributor at the plate, hitting .400 with a pair of home runs. And anyone who was questioning Ian Desmond‘s qualifications as a leadoff hitter has to be impressed with his .364/.417/.545 start. He’s hit safely in five of the first six games and has multiple hits in four of them. An auspicious start, indeed.

Even in a game like Wednesday’s, when the hits were hard to come by, the Nats found a way to get the runs home in a 4-0 win over the Mets with aggressive baserunning and patience at the plate.

Now for the first homestand of the year, the Nats get the Reds, who come in at 3-3 after taking two of three from Miami and dropping two of three to the St. Louis Cardinals. The key again for Washington will be the starting pitching, as the two hurlers with the weakest starts of the season so far are scheduled to pitch, although they’ll be matched up against weaker starters for the Reds.

In the home opener it’s Gio Gonzalez, who was roughed up for four runs on seven hits in just 3 2/3 innings on Saturday in Chicago. For the Reds, it’ll be Mat Latos, who had an equally unimpressive four earned runs and seven hits allowed in 4 2-3 innings in a Saturday loss to the Marlins.

In Friday’s contest, Jordan Zimmermann, Sunday’s hard-luck loser in Chicago, takes his 1.29 ERA to the mound against Broson Arroyo, who has been tough on Nats hitters over the years.Arroyo was pounded for 10 hits and four runs Sunday in a no-decision against Miami.

On Saturday, Edwin Jackson, coming off a mediocre Nationals debut, with three runs, four hits and two walks Monday night against the Mets, takes the mound for the Nats. Washington will face Cincy’s Homer Bailey, who allowed four runs on six hits over 5 2-3 innings in a loss to the Cardinals.

Finally, on Sunday, the Nats will send Detwiler, who was brilliant in shutting out the Mets on two hits over five innings Tuesday night, against Mike Leake, who was roughed up for seven hits and three runs over six innings in a loss to the Cardinals.