Apr 06

This Day in D.C Baseball History – A Brilliant Start to 2012

It’s often said that “it’s better to be lucky than good.” But it’s what you do with that luck that counts, and by making the most of the breaks that came their way Thursday in a 2-1 win over the Chicago Cubs, the Nationals are 1-0 to start the 2012 season, with plenty of optimism.

Stephen Strasburg was brilliant in his first opening day start, allowing just five hits over seven innings and 82 pitches, with a walk and five strikeouts.He also caught a few breaks, like a fine diving catch from Jayson Werth in right field with one out and nobody on in the second, and a strong throw from Wison Ramos to Ryan Zimmerman to nail a stealing Alfonso Soriano in the fourth. That was crucial, as the next hitter, ex-Nat Marlon Byrd, singled to drive in the Cubs’ only run of the game, with the hardest-hit ball off Strasburg all day. Had there been two men on base, the later heroics might have been for naught.

On almost any other day, Strasburg’s performance might have been good enough to get the win. But with the wind blowing in at Wrigley Field, Cubs Starter Ryan Dempster was even better, allowing just two hits and striking out 10 through almost eight innings. That fabled wind took two potential home runs away from Zimmerman and allowed the Cubs to remain in the lead until their first-year manager, Dale Sveum, opted to lift Dempster in favor of Kerry Wood with Ian Desmond aboard and one out in the eighth.

This was the Nats’ first big break, and they made the most of it, not by attacking, but with patience. Wood’s fabled fastball was moving a bit too much, and Desmond took advantage by stealing second, and Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche (0-3 all strikeouts, five runners stranded to that point) worked walks to load the bases. Then Werth, Nats fans’ favorite scapegoat last season when he could not drive in runners in scoring position, came through with an extraordinary act of patience that paid off.

Werth had hit just .228 and walked only 23 times in 144 at-bats with RISP in 2011. He was especially frustrating to watch with the bases loaded, when he went just 2-for-10, striking out four times and drawing not a single walk. He didn’t start out much better this year, stranding the same five runners that LaRoche had left on base in his first two-at-bats. But this time, after getting into an 0-2 hole, he followed the lead of his teammates. Rather than fighting off Wood’s four-seam fastballs, he laid off and worked the count full. Then, instead of flailing at Wood’s out pitch, a slider, he held up to send the tying run home. That was enough to get Strasburg off the hook and ruin Dempster’s fine work for the Cubs. Now it was time to go win the game.

After Tyler Clpppard (W, 1-0) set down the Cubs in the eighth, with only Danny Espinosa‘s fielding error marring the inning, the Nats went to work against Cubs closer Carlos Marmol (L, 0-1) in the ninth. They were down to their last out when Chad Tracy, who came into the game as a pinch-hitter the previous inning on a double switch, belted a 3-1 pitch into right field. The same wind that kept Zimmerman’s two blasts in the park held up this one, too, but it reached the wall for a double to put the go-ahead run on base with two out. Brett Carroll pinch ran for Tracy and up stepped Desmond, who laced his third hit of the game to right field, sending Carroll home with the go-ahead run.

With normal closer Drew Storen on the disabled list, it was up to veteran free-agent acquisition Brad Lidge (S, 1) to nail down the win, and the cagey right-hander came through with the help of another break and some fine defense. Lidge easily dispatched Reed Johnson, striking him out on three pitches. But Ian Stewart, 0-for-3 against Strasburg, followed up by lofting one into the “well” in right center. Werth could not get to it in time, and Johnson was on at third with the potential tying run.

Sveum put in speedy pinch runner Joe Mather, and then took a gamble: With the infield in, he put on a contact play. With Jeff Baker swinging at Lidge’s first pitch, and Mather breaking for home, the defense had to be perfect — and it was. Zimmerman played the ground smash flawlessly and fired a strike to Wilson Ramos, completing a bang-bang play to cut down the tying run at the plate. Then Lidge finished it by retiring Byrd, who had earlier given the Cubs the lead, on a 3-2, four-seam fastball that Ramos framed perfectly for a called third strike.

After an off day today, the Nats take on the Cubs again tomorrow at Wrigley, with Gio Gonzalez on the mound against Chicago right-hander Matt Garza.