Opening Day: Six Takeaways from Nationals' 9-7 Extra-Innings Win over Mets
After a snow- and rain-filled morning in Flushing, New York, the skies cleared and the sun came out to set the stage for Monday afternoon's Mets-Nationals Opening Day showdown.
The Nationals trailed by two runs at the end of the second inning, but battled back with a seventh-inning rally and a four-run 10th to win the game 9-7. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper each made their own respective headlines for Washington, but there were more important takeaways for Nationals fans to take note of.
Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Harper went a combined 3-14 with no RBIs, yet the team still scored nine runs, so what went right for D.C.? Well, several things. But which ones hold implications for the long-term? Let's take a look.
1. Drew Storen Appears to Be Beyond Spring Training Woes
While it was suggested by many different media outlets that Drew Storen could potentially be traded this offseason/spring, he certainly did a good job thanking the Nationals for keeping him around in his first appearance of the season, pitching a perfect seventh inning.
There were some concerns surrounding Storen coming into the season, as he was coming off a 2013 season in which he posted a 4.52 ERA (nearly a full point higher than his previous career high). Storen failed to quiet any of those concerns in spring training, pitching to an 8.10 ERA in seven appearances (6.2 innings).
However, he looked like the Drew Storen of old in Monday's appearance. Storen attacked the strike zone and dominated with his slider, striking out two batters. Many suggested that Storen was expendable this offseason because of the quality pitching of setup man Tyler Clippard. Ironically, it was Clippard who struggled in his 2014 debut, serving up a leadoff solo shot to Juan Lagares in the bottom of the eighth.
While one outing is a very small sample size, Storen did everything one could ask and certainly established a foundation for what the Nationals hope will be a very solid 2014 campaign.
2. Big Things in Store for Denard Span in 2014
No, Denard Span won't be hitting 20 home runs this season. If he hit 10, that would nearly double his career high.
But Span showed some quality selective aggressiveness in his five plate appearances on Monday. While he went only 1-for-4, he also managed to work a walk, and his one hit was arguably the most important one of the game. His two-out, game-tying double in the top of the ninth eventually sent the game to extra innings.
Many fans I've spoken to feel that an improved 2014 from Span means a spike in his stolen bases. But if Span wants to have those opportunities, it means he'll need to be on base. While Span struck out 77 times in 2013—not a horrible number—and posted a respectable .279 batting average, his on-base percentage was a career-low .327, just 48 points higher than his batting average.
Part of what makes Matt Williams such a great addition as the Nationals' new manager is his aggressive style. With Span's speed, Bryce Harper's combination of speed and power, etc., Williams may be the perfect manager to tap into the lineup's raw offensive potential. When he spoke to reporters at January's NatsFest, he said that it was important for the team to be aggressive, "but not reckless."
While the quote was directed at a previous question about Harper, it can certainly apply to Span as well. As the leadoff man, Span has several quality bats (Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond just to name a few) hitting behind him, and his job is to get on base in front of them. That doesn't always mean getting a hit, so the key will be knowing when to attack and when to take an outside pitch for a ball.
Span being selectively aggressive and working deep into counts will allow players like Harper, Zimmerman and Desmond to have a better idea of what pitchers are throwing. This could help spark offensive production from a Nationals team that was eighth in the National League in hits a season ago.
That said, Span told me at NatsFest that the number one thing he worked on this offseason was stealing bases—acceleration, getting good jumps and sliding. Williams did say he wanted Span to run more this season, and if he can improve his on-base percentage, that should result in many more than the 26 stolen base attempts he had a season ago.
3. Anthony Rendon Doing His Part to Keep Starting Job at Second Base
This offseason, Matt Williams told reporters that it was an open competition at second base. He insisted that the team had not given up on Danny Espinosa, and that he had spoken to Espinosa multiple times over the offseason.
When he was asked about the competition at NatsFest in January, Rendon smiled and appeared confident that he could keep the job. He gave politically correct answers about knowing that he had to compete, and that he had put in his work during the offseason. But there never seemed to be any doubt in his voice that he'd be the team's starting baseman come Opening Day.
Opening Day came, and Rendon was the starter. But Espinosa figures to see time (either as a defensive replacement or as a starter) in the early parts of the season. While Rendon had a better spring training (.289 average as opposed to Espinosa's .228), Espinosa is undeniably better on defense (7.5 UZR rating in 2012 as opposed to Rendon's -2.1 mark in 2013).
Espinosa had a quality at-bat in his lone plate appearance on Monday (more on that later). But Rendon was arguably the player of the game for the Nationals, going 2-for-5 with a double, a home run and four RBI. Rendon's double came in the top of the seventh, scoring Ian Desmond and bringing the Nationals within one. His home run came in the top of the 10th, driving in three and ultimately providing the game-winning runs.
Rendon was considered the top hitting prospect in the 2011 draft class, but didn't do anything overly impressive at the plate in his rookie season last year. While Rendon did come up with a few clutch hits, he finished with a .265 batting average, seven home runs and 34 RBI in 351 at-bats. Today, Rendon reminded everyone why he was such a highly touted prospect before injury concerns caused him to fall to the sixth spot in the 2011 draft.
As was the case with Drew Storen, it's unfair to make any long-lasting proclamations about a player based on one game. But if Rendon wants to secure his status as a starter in the Nationals infield, he certainly took a big step in the right direction on Monday.
4. Danny Espinosa Puts Together Quality Plate Appearance, Demonstrates Progress
Most Nationals fans were willing to give Danny Espinosa his walking papers after a forgettable 2013 season. But with a healthy wrist, a healed shoulder and a new approach at the plate, Espinosa appears ready to prove he can be a productive big leaguer once more.
This offseason, I spoke to Espinosa and he said that, "I'm not a home run guy. I need to focus on driving the ball to the gaps because that's my game."
Espinosa's swing certainly looked more compact in his pinch-hitting appearance on Monday. He demonstrated patience, fouling off difficult pitches and ultimately working a nine-pitch walk with two outs in the ninth. Espinosa kept the inning alive for Denard Span, who hit an RBI double that tied the game.
Espinosa's performance won't win him the second base job. Starter Anthony Rendon had a day of his own, but Espinosa's plate appearance demonstrated everything he promised to work on this offseason. If he keeps it up, he should certainly be able to hold down a roster spot, if not the Nationals' starting second base gig or a starting job elsewhere.
5. Jose Lobaton's Quality Play Reassuring in Wake of Wilson Ramos Injury
Jose Lobaton developed a reputation for coming through in the clutch last season in Tampa Bay. But when the Rays re-signed Jose Molina and acquired Ryan Hanigan from the Cincinnati Reds, he became the odd man out, and the Nationals swooped in and acquired him as their backup catcher.
When Wilson Ramos left Monday's game after taking a foul ball off his right hand, Lobaton stepped in and took care of business, going 1-for-2 and scoring on Anthony Rendon's three-run homer in the 10th inning. While that .500 average obviously won't stick over the course of the entire season, Lobaton's ability to hit, combined with his apparent comfort working with the pitching staff, was certainly comforting when reports hit the Internet that Ramos may be out five weeks.
Wilson Ramos salió del juego por dolor en su mano izquierda. Tiene fractura en uno de los metacarpianos. Estará fuera alrededor de 5semanas— Hablamos Beisbol (@hablamosbeisbol) March 31, 2014
For those who don't speak Spanish, the tweet translates to "Wilson Ramos came out of the game due to pain in his left hand. He has a metacarpal fracture. He will be out around five weeks."
Manager Matt Williams said after the Nationals' win that X-rays on Ramos' hand came back negative, but Ramos will see a specialist on Tuesday for further examination. If he is to miss an extended period of time, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo will be forced to decide whether to acquire a replacement or stick with Lobaton.
With any significant upgrade likely requiring a substantial return, and no teams in sell mode yet on April 1, there is a real possibility that Lobaton will become the Nationals' everyday catcher with Jhonatan Solano likely to be called up from Triple-A to be the backup. If Lobaton can continue to play like he did on Monday, that may not be the worst thing for Washington.
6. Aaron Barrett Looks Ready to Be a Big Leaguer
A month ago, Aaron Barrett was a long shot at best to make the Nationals' big league roster. Today, he made his major league debut in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game on Opening Day. He walked away with his first career win.
Barrett took to Twitter to voice his excitement about the W:
As he prepared to face his first batter, it was apparent that Barrett had some rookie jitters. He walked around the mound at a very quick pace, and looked tense. However, Barrett managed to fight those first-time butterflies and retire the Mets in short order, striking out two batters.
And even in his rookie debut, in a crucial situation, Barrett was not afraid to go after hitters. Seven of his 11 pitches were for strikes. While Omar Quintanilla, Travis d'Arnaud and Ruben Tejada may not be the most intimidating trio a pitcher will ever face, the composure and confidence that Barrett pitched with is hopefully something that he can carry into future appearances.
With the likes of Ryan Mattheus, Mike Gonzalez, Sammy Solis, Ross Ohlendorf and Christian Garcia all failing to clinch bullpen spots, there are several options waiting in the wings if the Barrett experiment doesn't work out. But so far, Barrett has done his part to earn his spot, and now he has a win to show for it.