The ball came screaming off Daniel Murphy's bat, soaring over Giancarlo Stanton's head in right field. And when it caromed off the wall and back towards the infield, the sellout crowd of 41,650 at Nationals Park roared with delight as the home team turned the basepaths into a merry-go-round.
Anthony Rendon scored. Bryce Harper scored. Ryan Zimmerman scored. And Murphy slid headfirst into third base, slapping his hands together and letting out a loud "Woo!" having just completed his first home at-bat in D.C. in style.
Who could have foreseen at that moment it would represent the high point of a long, cold, wet and frustrating afternoon and evening at the park?
Murphy's three-run triple in the bottom of the first was followed by a never-ending string of strikeouts, flyouts and groundouts from a Nationals lineup that can't claim it didn't have enough chances during a 6-4 loss to the Marlins in a disappointing home opener.
"I wish we would've won," Murphy said. "I thought the crowd was great. I thought we gave ourselves chances, and over the course of a long season we'll be able to cash in on those more times than not."
The Nationals can only hope they give themselves this many chances on a nightly basis in 2016. They put 15 men on base via six hits and nine walks. But they managed only two run-scoring hits: Murphy's bases-loaded triple in the first and Harper's solo homer in the seventh.
Overall, the Nats were an abysmal 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position, striking out eight times in those situations.
"I'd like to think it's an aberration," manager Dusty Baker said. "We got nine walks. I mean, they were walking us. But we couldn't come up with that big hit, other than Murphy's."
Strikeouts, in particular, are one of Baker's biggest bugaboos in the game today. He spoke often this spring about the increased acceptance of them in the sport over the last decade and the need to put more emphasis on making contact.
The Nationals made an effort to address the problem this winter, acquiring two of the best contact hitters in the game in Murphy and Ben Revere. But Revere landed on the disabled list after straining an oblique muscle on his very first swing wearing a curly W helmet, and now the 27-year-old center fielder can do nothing but wait for the injury to heal.
"You don't want to keep aggravating it, so you'd lose more time, lose more games," he said. "And it's something I don't want to do. Because the more games we play, the more I'll be aggravated and upset, because I won't be out there trying to help my team win. But for now, I'm just going to put it in God's hands. Hopefully this healing process goes quickly and I'll be out there on the field."
The healthy members of the Nationals lineup will have to pick up the slack in the meantime. Michael A. Taylor, who dazzled this spring and now finds himself assuming Revere's leadoff job, is 0-for-11 with four strikeouts. Jayson Werth likewise is 0-for-11 with three strikeouts, with seven of the at-bats and all of the strikeouts coming with runners in scoring position.
"Putting the ball in play is obviously better," said Zimmerman, who has only one strikeout in 12 at-bats so far. "But pitchers are pretty good nowadays, too. They're throwing a lot of stuff that wasn't thrown 10 or 15 years ago when people didn't strike out as much. So there's two sides to every argument. But the short answer is: Yeah, it's better to put the ball in play. We all don't want to strike out. But those pitchers are pretty good, too."
It didn't help matters that the Nationals, who got back home from Atlanta around 3 a.m. and were back at the park by 12:30 p.m., then had to wait out an 85-minute rain delay in the middle of the second inning. They didn't leave the stadium until nearly 10 p.m., exhausted but grateful not to have to return until Saturday afternoon.
"I hate to use the late get-in (as an excuse), but you could kind of see the guys' concentration level wasn't the same, like it had been in the past," Baker said. "So tomorrow's off-day is coming at the right time. It was a long, long game, a short night. We're going to enjoy hopefully this day off, sleep in some and come back strong the next day."
As for any larger concerns about a lineup that failed to deliver so many times in this one, Baker most definitely isn't reaching for the panic button.
"This is our third game," he said. "So just be patient, because that's what I'm forced to do."
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