For five innings, the Nationals gave their opening day sellout crowd reason to get nervous about the long grind ahead. Despite countless opportunities to make a dent into Marlins starter Edinson Volquez, they simply could not produce a hit with a runner in scoring position, surely making fans (and manager Dusty Baker) cringe about the long-term prospects for this lineup.
Turns out the Nats didn’t need a big hit with men in scoring position. They just needed two big blasts off the Miami bullpen, then some shutdown work from their own relief corps to emerge with a 4-2 victory to open the 2017 season.
Bryce Harper’s solo homer in the sixth and Adam Lind’s two-run pinch-homer in the seventh were just what the doctor ordered. Those pair of blasts produced all the offense the Nationals needed on this 66-degree April afternoon, and let the crowd of 42,744 depart with smiles and reason to remain optimistic.
Harper and Lind each homered off David Phelps, one of eight right-handed relievers the Marlins are employing to begin the season. They elected to carry zero lefties, which played right into Baker’s hands. Of the first eight batters Phelps faced, six stood in the left-handed batter’s box. Three of those recorded hits, two of them homers.
The Nationals bullpen, meanwhile, was well-equipped to handle the late innings of this one. After Stephen Strasburg departed following seven strong innings, Baker turned to lefty Sammy Solís for a 1-2-3 eighth and then Blake Treinen for the ninth.
Treinen, the newly minted closer for the defending division champs, gave the crowd no reason to worry. He retired the heart of the Marlins lineup in the ninth, securing his first save of the season.
Thus wrapped up a tidy opening day victory for the home club, made possible in no small part by the work of its opening day starter.
Pitching exclusively out of the stretch as he did all spring, Strasburg was sharp from the get-go, retiring the first eight batters he faced and cruising through his first three innings on 40 pitches. But the Marlins started squaring up balls against him in the top of the fourth, and before they knew what hit them, the Nationals were trailing 2-0 via two doubles (J.T. Realmuto and Giancarlo Stanton) and an RBI single (Marcel Ozuna).
By keeping his pitch count low, though, Strasburg was able to pitch deep into the game. So it was that he posted zeroes in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings, while Miami manager Don Mattingly had to pull his starter after only five frames.
Edinson Volquez had cruised to that point, getting big outs when he needed them, but the veteran’s pitch count was up to 82. So Mattingly turned to his bullpen for 12 outs despite a 2-0 lead.
The Nationals had blown several chances to break through against Volquez, but they stranded the bases loaded in the bottom of the first (on three consecutive strikeouts) and also squandered opportunities to score in the third and fourth, going a collective 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position.
The big blow finally came in the sixth, from the most likely source of a big blow. Harper had gone down quietly in his first two at-bats of the season, but he made the most of his third chance, driving a pitch from reliever Phelps to right-center for his fifth career opening day homer ... in his fifth career opening day game played.
Harper’s blast trimmed the deficit to 2-1. And that set the stage for Lind to really steal the show in his D.C. debut.
The veteran slugger was summoned off the bench with two outs and a man on first to face Phelps, the exact kind of situation the Nationals envisioned when they signed him on the eve of spring training. He took two balls from Phelps, then ripped a fastball to deep right-center, giving the Nationals their first lead of the day.
The sellout crowd didn’t stop cheering until Lind climbed the dugout stairs for a curtain call, an opening day memory he and they won’t soon forget.