The Nationals are red-hot to start the 2013 season.
So is their hitting coach.
The heater in the Nationals' tunnel serves an important purpose on a night when the temperature at first pitch was 45 degrees and dropped quickly. But for Rick Eckstein, the propane heater nearly did more harm than good.
"He went down there and started talking to one of the hitters that was sitting close to the fire, and he was standing close to the fire," manager Davey Johnson said, a smile on his face after the Nats' 3-0 win over the Marlins. "It just fried, I mean, his pant leg's all burned out. That was a severe hot foot there. But anyway, a lot going on in that dugout."
While Eckstein made it out unscathed with the exception of his uniform pants, starter Gio Gonzalez gave the Nationals a bit of a scare in the top of the first inning when he started putting pressure on his temple. Gonzalez started suffering from a major headache after throwing his warmup tosses, but he popped some aspirin, got a massage on his temple and pitched through the discomfort.
He ended up going six scoreless innings, allowing just two hits and two walks, with five strikeouts. Gonzalez's curve was especially sharp today, despite the wind.
"We were kind of hoping he could make it, because right after he finished warming up, he got a headache," Johnson said. "We were worried about him. He got a couple asprin and went out there. We were really worried, because it was a bad headache. Probably the cold weather, being from Miami, he's not used to the cold weather.
"But he pitched a heck of a ballgame. He made pitches when he had to, and he threw a lot of pitches one inning, but other than that, he was good. Again, if it wasn't that cold, I'd have probably gone further with him. But good outing. Good first outing."
Then there was Gonzalez's home run, a shot that was crushed through a stiff wind and landed in the left field bleachers. It was just Gonzalez's seventh career hit but his second career homer. He came back to a dugout filled with smiling teammates and coaches and got a curtain call from the 26,269 who braved the low temperatures at Nats Park tonight.
"I mean, he's going to be smiling whether he strikes out or gets a hit or gets a walk or bunts somebody over," Johnson said. "He's smiling. He's got a great attitude."
The Nats made holding runners on base and cutting down on stolen bases a priority this spring, and catcher Kurt Suzuki teamed up with Gonzalez to cut down Juan Pierre attempting to steal in the third. Suzuki gunned Pierre despite needing to do so on an offspeed pitch.
"Both catchers are great catch-and-throw guys, but he threw a perfect strike," Johnson said. "It was great, not letting anything get going. It was outstanding."
Gonzalez gave way to Ryan Mattheus, who gave way to Drew Storen who gave way to Rafael Soriano. Outside of Soriano allowing a hit and a walk to bring the tying run to the plate in the ninth, that trio mowed the Marlins down, marking a second straight game where the 'pen did its job.
"Yeah, different case of characters out of the bullpen except for Soriano," Johnson said. "But I've got confidence in everybody down in the bullpen. That was, I don't know about you guys, but it was cold. It's not baseball weather. But (Ryan Zimmerman) coming alive, I'm glad to see him get a couple basehits, drive in a run. That was a big run, that third run. So, another good outing."
After a rocky spring, Storen made his 2013 debut, and just like Johnson expected, the right-hander turned it on when he needed to, working a 1-2-3 eighth with a strikeout of Chris Coghlan to end the frame.
"Yeah, I thought he threw the ball great today," Johnson said. "He threw some good-located fastballs and wasn't trying to overthrow. Just made some good pitches."
After back-to-back strong outings from Stephen Strasburg and Gonzalez, who combined to throw 13 scoreless innings and allow just five hits, Jordan Zimmermann will step to the mound tomorrow trying to match his rotation-mates.
"Bar's set for Zim," Johnson said. "But there's always that competition among good pitching staffs, and I don't see this year being any different."