NEW YORK - On Friday, the Nationals did to the New York Mets what the Atlanta Braves did to them eight days earlier: They entered as the road team in a home opener, the ones getting booed in the extended introductions of both teams, and promptly unplugged all the fervor of the year's first game by giving the home fans little to cheer about.
In a tough NL East, the Mets are probably the one team than which the Nationals can legitimately say they have more talent. The first task in getting out of the NL East basement, then, is beating the Mets.
The way the Nationals did that was just by making fewer mistakes than the Mets. They took advantage of nine walks from the New York pitching staff, getting three hits in nine at-bats with runners in scoring position after collecting just seven in their first 50 this year. They made no errors, walked just two and got another 3 1/3 shutout innings from their bullpen. It was a clean, thorough and convincing performance.
Here are today's awards:
Jordan Zimmermann: The right-hander allowed two runs in 5 1/3 innings, striking out four with minimal use of his curveball in 41-degree temperatures. Zimmermann used his slider - the less feel-oriented of his two breaking balls - more often, and threw his fastball for strikes. He needed 99 pitches to get that far in the game, which is a bit of a concern, but it's the first time he's thrown that many pitches since July 18, 2009, his last start before Tommy John surgery. "I felt good all day. I wasn't tired in the sixth," Zimmermann said. And the two-run single he managed off R.A. Dickey's knuckleball in the second inning? "I don't know what happened there," Zimmermann said.
Rick Ankiel: For all the talk about the center fielder not being terribly good at getting on base, he's done an impressive job of it early this year. Ankiel went 3-for-4 on Saturday, scoring a pair of runs, and now has a .261/.370/.391 line early this year. He did hit into a double play, and got thrown out at home trying to score on Ivan Rodriguez's grounder in the fourth, but with Zimmermann coming up and two outs, it made sense to take a chance.
Tyler Clippard: We talked in detail about Clippard's day here, but it essentially boiled down to this: The Nationals were in a situation where they needed a strikeout, they called on Clippard and they got it. He fooled Jose Reyes with a pair of changeups, striking the shortstop out for just the third time this year, and got a flyout to end the inning with runners stranded on second and third. He's already stranded seven of nine inherited runners this year, and has a 0.00 ERA.
Ian Desmond: He went 0-for-5 on Friday, though he did drive in a run with a groundout in the eighth inning. Desmond struck out twice, and his average in the season's first seven games dropped to .214.
Nationals' baserunning: Ankiel's risk was justifiable, but Ivan Rodriguez also got thrown out trying to advance to third on Zimmermann's single, making the final out of the second inning at third base after the Nationals had already scored two runs. And Adam LaRoche thought Laynce Nix's fly ball to right field in the ninth would fall for a hit, and had already rounded second when Carlos Beltran caught it, easily doubling him off first. It's good to be aggressive, but the Nationals need to use some discretion at times.
In Case You Missed It:
* Danny Espinosa drew three walks, though a closer look at those at-bats would make a less convincing case for his potential as a leadoff hitter than the box score would. Espinosa saw just five strikes in four plate appearances, and had only three strikes thrown to him in his three walks. He deserves credit for not swinging at bad pitches, but the walks he drew weren't terribly tough to get.
* In another example of aggressive baserunning, Ankiel took off on a 3-1 pitch to Espinosa with two out in the second inning. He would have been thrown out stealing, but Espinosa drew a walk.
How impressed are you with Tyler Clippard early this season? Are the Nationals running a risk of using him too often, or do you keep going to him every tight situation because he's your best chance to win?
Leave your answers in the comments section, and we can get a discussion going. The Nationals and Mets play the second game of their series tonight at 7:10 p.m., with Tom Gorzelanny making his 2011 debut for the Nationals against Chris Capuano