Ted Leavengood: A long season’s early lesson

The Nationals’ home opener in 2012 was against the Cincinnati Reds. They won three of the first four at Nationals Park to set up a truly successful first month and got the season rolling toward 98 wins. The Reds didn’t like that movie and let Washington know they will be playing a very different role this year.

The Reds had the second best record in the National League last year, winning 97 games. With Shin-Soo Choo at the top of their order, they are going to be even better. Choo’s left-handed swing seems a good fit in the Great American Small Park. He went 5-for-12 with two home runs in the three-game series against the Nationals. Todd Frazier, who finished third behind Bryce Harper in the Rookie of the Year voting, had an even better weekend, going 8-for-13 to raise his average to .480.

The Reds served notice to both Dan Haren and Stephen Strasburg that they are a team to take seriously in 2013. It is a lesson that should be reviewed as early as possible. Because as disappointing as the three games in Cincinnati were, this early series can set up the 2013 season just as well as the one a year ago did. As encouraging as coming back to win the second game in 11 innings was, there is a chance to use these early games to get better, to learn what the rest of the season has in store.

There has been so much discussion in recent weeks about the Nationals having a target on their backs that it has lost its meaning. This weekend provides the first really solid look at how that will translate in the real world. Teams are up for the Nationals and they are going to play their best. They’re going to relish hitting against Strasburg. Players like Frazier want to prove that they were really the best rookie in 2012. They are going to bring their A games and if the Nats don’t field well and don’t play smart baseball, the good teams are going to enjoy showing them how it is done.

The Nationals made six errors in the three games and that doesn’t count some of the bobbles and errors in judgment that won’t be scored officially. Contrast it with the flawless baseball the Reds played. That’s what having a target on your back means. Teams are going to play their best; they aren’t going to make mistakes. In 2013, Washington’s surprising talent from top to bottom is not going to be enough. It will not be enough for Danny Espinosa to have a great shortstop’s arm at second base. It will require putting that arm to the smartest possible use.

Most discussions of the Nationals’ great 2012 season focus on the league-best pitching. What gets almost no press is the glovework that made the pitching so good. Only three teams in the National League made fewer errors. When the game situation demanded a double play and the requisite ground ball was delivered from the mound, Ian Desmond and Espinosa were as efficient as anyone. The Nationals cannot possibly repeat their exemplary 2012 fielding numbers at this pace.

The best part of the three days in Cincy came Saturday, when Ross Detwiler outpitched Mike Leake, making a case that he is the best fifth starter in the NL, if not in baseball. Wilson Ramos demonstrated that he is all the way back from his injury-shortened 2012. Kurt Suzuki made it apparent that the Nationals have the best catching tandem in the game. But the best of the second game occurred when Desmond hit the go-ahead homer in the 11th after struggling both at bat and in the field. The Nationals need Desmond to play at the same level as in 2012 - in the field and at bat.

It is a long season. That is the bromide being bandied about to explain away this past weekend. It will be a long season indeed if the Nationals don’t realize quickly that the good teams are ready. And there is no calculator to determine which teams are this year’s good teams, which ones will break out like the Nats did last season.

Queue up the White Sox, a young team with some veteran talent like Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko and Alex Rios. It doesn’t get any easier. The White Sox are in the hunt for the American League Central and want to test themselves against the best, to measure their readiness for the Detroit Tigers by playing well against Washington. That is how it is going to be all season long.

There is plenty of good news, like the sweep of the Marlins, who have owned the Nationals since 2005, the handcuffing of Giancarlo Stanton for most of that three-game series. But the best news will come when the Nationals break out the gloves from 2012, when they begin to play consistently crisp defense and execute the plays that came to seem routine a season ago. That is what will determine how long a season it is going to be.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released in June 2011. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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