Nationals revel in watching Harper, Strasburg at work

Having trouble deciding on the right word to describe Bryce Harper's two-homer performance in the Nationals' 2-0 win over the Miami Marlins in Monday's season opener? How about the double play Harper started in the seventh with a laser throw from left field? Or the way, after going deep twice, he faked a bunt that would have caught Placido Polanco so by surprise that Harper might have run to second before the Marlins third baseman could react?

Consult your thesaurus. Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond doesn't want to play the role of Roget. Frankly, he's run out of plaudits to throw Harper's way.

"I've already used all the adjectives," Desmond said when asked of Harper's exploits. "He's great. Just say that."

As much fun as Nationals fans had watching Harper's offensive performance, or right-hander Stephen Strasburg's seven shutdown innings, their teammates might have enjoyed it more.

One the bench, a common theme emerged, said catcher Wilson Ramos.

"We say, 'This guy's unbelievable,' " Ramos said, referring to Harper, who was playing in his first opening day as a major leaguer. "First time at bat, boom. Homer. Second time, homer again. He's an unbelievable player. That's what I have to say about him."

Ramos also had a close-up view of Strasburg's dominance, too. After yielding a leadoff single to Marlins left fielder Juan Pierre, Strasburg set down the next 19 hitters in order before Giancarlo Stanton hit a one-out double to left in the second. Of course, Stanton was the guy thrown out at home on the 7-2-3-4-2 inning-ending double play started by Harper.

The Marlins were aggressive at the plate, which cut down on Strasburg's strikeouts - he only had three - but meant 1-2-3 innings aplenty after the right-hander adjusted to what batters were willing to give him. Strasburg used more off-speed pitches early in the count and didn't need to worry about finishing hitters off with strikeouts.

Stasburg threw 80 pitches, and not all of them had to be blazing hard stuff.

"That's the key for the pitcher: first-pitch strikes and then you can use your stuff," Ramos said. "Changeup, curveball, slider. That's the most important thing for them. Throw the first-pitch strike, then (I) can put any (pitch) down. Those guys, they know Steve throws hard and uses the fastball a lot. We have to change the mind for the hitter and try to throw something different."

While some fans might be troubled by a Strasburg performance without double-digit strikeouts, Desmond said it showed the ace's maturation as a pitcher.

"I looked up in like the sixth inning and he had like 65 pitches, I think, and I was like, 'Wow, he has come a long way.' Last year, early on his career, you'd look up in the sixth inning and he was close to 100 pitches," Desmond said. "If he wants to be the workhorse that he is, he's going to have to pitch more games like this, where he's going later into the game with a lower pitch count."

It's domination, Desmond said, just a different kind than some people are used to seeing from Strasburg, who's learning he doesn't have to do all the heavy lifting.

"He's putting more trust in us defensively, and that's what it's about," Desmond said. "It's trusting your defense, pitching to contact, pounding the zone and he did a great job of that."

Strasburg wasn't the only one changing it up a little. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, asked about Harper's fake bunt in the sixth before flying out to left, rolled his eyes and chuckled.

"As long as we win, he can hit .300 and I'll drive in 10 (runs)," Zimmerman joked. "Really, he's a special player."

From the bullpen, reliever Tyler Clippard enjoyed watching a crisp game that took only 2 hours, 10 minutes to complete. But the speedy contest meant that Clippard barely had time to get into his in-game routine before warming up to pitch a scoreless eighth inning.

"It's fun," he said. "The whole game. Watching Bryce hit those couple homers and watching Stephen get in there and dominate like he did today, it gives us a good feeling and a good start to the season."

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