If Monday night’s game seemed to you like a reprisal of Opening Night – albeit an improved one – you aren’t alone.
On a rainy day in The District, exactly three months after the first game of the Nationals promise-packed 2013 campaign, on the first official day of the second half of the season, the night began in eerily similar fashion. Instead of Opening Day starter Stephen Strasburg on the mound, it was de facto ace Jordan Zimmermann toeing the rubber, in search of his National League-leading 12th win. And after a scoreless top of the first inning, Washington came to bat with Bryce Harper once again hitting third in their lineup.
After two outs, Harper stood in the box to face the opponent’s ace, took ball one, then rocketed a home run to put the Nationals in front.
However, that’s where the similarities stopped. Back in April, Harper was that game’s only offense, homering again in his second at-bat for the only other run of the game in a 2-0 victory. Monday night, the rest of the offense came alive. Not content to rest on their laurels, they scored 10 runs the night after plating 13 to match a franchise two-game record with 23 tallies, and the bullpen put the clamps on as the Milwaukee Brewers began to hit their way back into the game. And while they allowed five runs, Nationals pitchers offered up only a single base on balls, making Milwaukee earn their ultimately futile attempt to come back.
Even Harper’s home run reflected the change. Unlike his first Opening Day blast, a majestic shot to his pull field in right, this one required an adjustment, a patient, measured swing to drive the ball the other way. It wasn’t as pretty, but in many ways it was more impressive.
Perhaps there’s something to that. Last year’s Nationals nearly went wire-to-wire, riding their impressive young talent and a series of nail-biting wins to their first-ever division title. Now, a half-season into their attempted encore, with the targets primed, painted, edged, highlighted and lacquered on their backs, they seem to know that getting back to the top of the mountain will not be free and easy, but a daily grind.
“Everybody knows we’ve got some work to do,” said Nationals Manager Davey Johnson after the game, only willing to indulge in Harper’s momentous return for a short moment before refocusing on the larger task at hand.
Ian Desmond talks about it nearly every day. Fresh off a record-setting month at the plate and a 56-game errorless streak in the field, the shortstop turned in another mistake-free game, collecting another extra-base hit, another RBI.
Moved up to the two-hole in the lineup – less of an RBI spot than he is accustomed – Jayson Werth took advantage of his opportunities with runners in scoring position, driving home five runs for the first time since his All-Star campaign back in 2009.
“(Jayson) hitting second just causes more problems for the opposing manager,” said Johnson, who is finally sporting the kind of lineup he envisioned when pitchers and catchers reported to Florida back in February, what must seem like a lifetime ago.
Ultimately, 81 games deeper into the season, the feeling in the ballpark Monday night mirrored that on Opening Day, the optimism of what this team is capable of accomplishing palpable in the crowd. The main difference: now everyone knows it won’t be as easy as Harper sometimes makes it look.