Marty Niland: Little things mean a lot in Nationals’ win in opener

It wasn’t just big hits and the clutch pitches that gave the Nationals a 2-1 opening day win over the Chicago Cubs. For the past six weeks, the team has focused on fundamentals - little things that translate to success or failure over the long haul. They came to fruition Thursday in Chicago, contributing to the Nats’ first win and setting the stage for future success. Here are three little things that not only keyed the win, but should give Nats fans confidence that the team will come out on top in crucial situations this year.

Johnson’s double switch: It’s the National League manager’s ultimate weapon: Keep a pinch hitter in the game and still make a pitching change. But he has to know when it’s appropriate to use the double switch, and Davey Johnson, managing on opening day for the first time in a dozen years, nailed it.

After seven sharp innings and 82 pitches, starter Stephen Strasburg was clearly done. Trailing 1-0 with just one hit to that point and the pitcher’s spot due to lead off the eighth, most managers would call for a pinch hitter. Chad Tracy, (.260 with three homers and 15 RBIs in spring training) was as good a choice as any to try to get something going. But Johnson went the extra step, keeping him in at first base in bottom of the eighth and putting setup man Tyler Clippard in the cleanup spot, in place of Adam LaRoche. Coming off an ankle injury that limited him for most of this spring, the Nats’ starting first baseman was having a bad day at the plate. He struck out three times against Cubs starter Ryan Dempster, stranding five runners.

Tracy also struck out against Dempster, although he had a solid at-bat, going to a full count. But after Kerry Wood’s wildness helped the Nats tie the game later in the eighth, Tracy got another chance in the ninth. He made the most of it, banging a 3-2 slider off the right field wall for a double that would lead to the go-ahead run. For Johnson, the move was a sure sign that the managerial rust is gone and the mind is still sharp as he begins his 16th season on the bench at age 69.

An at-bat Werth waiting for: Jayson Werth was Nats fans’ favorite scapegoat last season, when he simply could not drive in runners in scoring position, hitting just .228 and walking only 23 times in 144 at-bats. He was especially frustrating to watch with the bases loaded, when he went just 2-for-10, striking out four times and not drawing 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 in the eighth, after Wood walked Ryan Zimmerman and LaRoche to load the bases with two outs, Werth finally came through - after getting into an 0-2 hole, no less. Rather than fight 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. Those who were disappointed in Werth’s clutch performance a year ago can take heart in his patience in this situation.

Zimmerman’s reflexes and rifle: Cubs skipper Dale Sveum had the contact play on after Ian Stewart tripled off Brad Lidge with one out in the bottom of the ninth. With the infield in, Jeff Baker going after the first pitch and speedy pinch runner Joe Mather breaking for home, the defense had to be perfect. But Ryan Zimmerman played it flawlessly and fired a strike to Wilson Ramos, completing a bang-bang play to cut down the tying run at the plate. Anyone who’s familiar with Zimmerman’s defensive prowess wouldn’t be surprised, but the fact that he and Ramos executed the play so perfectly so early in the season shows that they are locked in and primed to be defensive stars this season.

A game like Thursday’s shows that big-time performances don’t always steal the show. Dempster mowed down the Nats hitters for most of the day, but his performance was wasted by his teammates’ flawed fundamentals. The Nats, meanwhile, did enough little things to pull off a win and show their fans that there could be many more days like this to come in 2012.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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