Nats drop third straight 8-2 in dud of a home opener

There's a long way to go, a really long way, and nobody should give more than a cursory look at the standings on April 5, when the temperatures are in the low 40s and there's snow in the weekend forecast.

But if you do happen to glance at the National League East tally right now, you might notice the team sitting atop the division doesn't wear red and isn't seeking its third consecutive title. No, it's the Mets currently residing in first place, now leading the Nationals by 1 1/2 games following today's 8-2 victory on South Capitol Street, a game that offered a glimpse into what could be a much more competitive division race than we've seen the last two seasons.

A sellout crowd of 42,477 braved the bitter cold and wind to welcome their ballclub back home for the first time in 2018, celebrate Max Scherzer's Cy Young Award, Daniel Murphy's Silver Slugger Award and Ryan Zimmerman's Comeback Player of the Year Award. It roared with approval when Stephen Strasburg retired the side in the top of the first and Adam Eaton doubled to lead off the bottom of the inning and later score to give the home team another early lead.

But by the time Strasburg exited after allowing four runs in six innings, Eaton had been pulled after moving around awkwardly in the field following an adventurous trip around the bases and Trea Turner had been ejected after arguing a called third strike that stranded the bases loaded, that crowd began to turn restless.

Kintzler-Throws-White-Sidebar.jpgAnd when Brandon Kinztler served up a seventh-inning grand slam to Jay Bruce to blow the game wide open, there were more than a couple boos emanating from the stands on what normally should be the happiest day of the year.

It would be easy to chalk this up as a rough afternoon at the park, but it came on the heels of back-to-back blowout losses in Atlanta (another NL East opponent off to a hot start). And this one featured more than a few disconcerting moments.

Start with Eaton's early departure. In his first game at Nationals Park since he tore the ACL in his left knee April 28, the leadoff man wowed the crowd with a first-inning double and third-inning walk, each resulting in a run scored. But in racing all the way around from first base to score on Anthony Rendon's third-inning double, Eaton slid awkwardly across the plate, hitting the ground hard and remaining down there for an extra moment.

Eaton returned to his position in left field and played two more innings out there. But he didn't look especially nimble as he tried to track down Michael Conforto's fifth-inning drive off the top of the wall (a ball initially ruled a double but changed to a home run upon review). By the top of the sixth, Brian Goodwin was trotting out to left field in Eaton's place. (The Nationals did not provide any reason for the switch during the game.)

The Nationals were hoping for a big-time performance from Strasburg on the heels of ragged starts by A.J. Cole and Scherzer in Atlanta, but the No. 2 starter made a couple of costly mistakes: an aborted pickoff throw that was ruled a balk to force in a run, then a fastball down to notorious low-ball slugger Yoenis Cespédes, who hammered it for fourth-inning home run.

Even so, the Nats were in prime position to rally from two runs down in the bottom of the sixth, when they loaded the bases with nobody out and the middle of the lineup at the plate. But Zimmerman lofted a lazy flyball to right, Howie Kendrick smoked a line drive right at shortstop José Reyes and Turner was called out looking at an 0-2 pitch from Jacob deGrom off the outside corner.

Turner had several words for Doug Eddings after that call, but the plate umpire let it slide until the Nationals shortstop came back at him with more words. That earned Turner the first ejection of his career.

Even after all that, the Nats still had a chance - until Kintzler loaded the bases with two outs in the seventh, turned an 0-2 count against Bruce into a 3-2 count, then watched as the lefty slugger sent a fastball soaring to right-center for a grand slam that pushed this game out of reach.

It was the low point of a frustrating home opener, and it left everybody walking out of the park with a sour taste in their mouths. The season is only one week old, and this surely won't be the defining game out of a 162-game marathon.

But that doesn't mean the Nationals can't wake up Friday morning, look up at the standings at a division rival off to a 5-1 start compared to their 4-3 record and wonder if the days of cakewalks through the NL East are no more.

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