Ted Leavengood: On opening day, an elegant masterpiece

Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg made a compelling case on opening day to be considered the two best talents ever to play Major League Baseball in Washington, D.C. Facing a depleted Miami Marlins roster, Strasburg seemed to hardly work up a sweat as he breezed through seven innings on 80 pitches without allowing a run. On a day when Ricky Nolasco had his good stuff, Harper hit two laser shots that bored through a slight incoming breeze to easily reach the right field stands.

The final score was 2-0, predicated by those two solo home runs and the scoreless innings of Strasburg and company. Baseball is a team game and after a season of winning baseball, Washington fans recognize that every player among all of the other players, be they Roger Bernadina or Adam LaRoche, will be heroes during the long season. But this was a day to recognize the remarkable singular talents of the two best players to suit up for Washington since Walter Johnson.

The crowd took on legendary proportions. Paid attendance was 45,274, the largest regular season gathering yet since Nationals Park opened. Only for the fifth playoff game in last year’s National League Division Series, have more Washingtonians believed there was a chance to glimpse history in the making. There were no disappointments yesterday. The weather was almost perfect and the game could not have been better.

There was a certain elegance and simplicity to the game. Strasburg is capable of drama. He can blow 100 mph fastballs past the hitter, but he was more of a yeoman in carving up the Marlins hitters with offspeed stuff. Giancarlo Stanton had a long fly ball and a solid double, but otherwise there was little chance that Miami would scratch the surface of his polished gem.

As beautiful as the two home runs were, Harper’s defense provided one of the most electric moments in the game. In the top of the seventh inning, with one out, Stanton hit his ringing double. Placido Polanco hit a hard grounder over the second base bag that Desmond reached and might have made the play on, but it bobbled out of his glove and there were suddenly runners on first and third with only the single out.

Marlins catcher Rob Brantly hit a line drive right at Harper, standing in his tracks in left field. Almost any other left fielder in the game would have been lucky to throw out Stanton coming in from third base, but Stanton merely bluffed toward the plate. It gave him the better chance to watch Harper’s throw as it sailed in to catcher Wilson Ramos. Ramos took the throw about chest high as he noticed Polanco halfway between first and second base - possibly by design in hopes that somehow the Marlins could squeeze Stanton in.

But there was no confusion or hurry on the part of the Nationals. Ramos executed the play perfectly, moving toward Polanco and keeping an eye on Stanton as his throw to second was quickly returned, allowing a quick tag to be applied before Stanton could score. Three outs and the shutout preserved. The crowd roared its approval on the throw and on the subsequent finish to the double play that ended the inning.

The veteran fans knew that in days gone by either the defense or the pitcher would have faltered in that situation. Those teams are being quickly forgotten. This Washington team has a chance to be something very special. Not since Johnson took the field at old Griffith Stadium has there been a player as talented as either Strasburg or Harper. And never have we had two of this caliber on the same team.

The pregame ceremonies gave plenty of attention to the team and its many stars. Ian Desmond was presented his Silver Slugger as the best-hitting shortstop. Adam LaRoche got his Gold Glove Award and the Silver Slugger. Strasburg was recognized as the best hitting pitcher and then the Rookie of the Year, Manager of the Year and Executive of the Year awards were presented to Harper, Davey Johnson and Mike Rizzo, respectively. It was a longer ceremony than we have ever seen to start the season.

So whether you like the block W for the old Nationals or the curly W, whether you prefer to call them the Senators or even the Grays, no matter how you view your Washington baseball, this game had the air of greatness to it - as does the team. It was a quiet start, one that allows the season to build to a crescendo. There were only two real heroes from among the cast, but there is plenty of time for the rest to take center stage in the days to come. So take a bow from the rostrum, Davey Johnson, this first performance was a well-managed masterpiece and there is little doubt there will be many to follow.

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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