It all came together today in the Washington Nationals' season-opening 2-1 win over the Chicago Cubs. '09 no.1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg was on the mound keeping the Nationals close through seven strong innings in which he struck out five and walked just one. Jayson Werth, the Nats' big free agent acquisition in the winter of 2010 and D.C. GM Mike Rizzo's first big gamble, rewarded the GM's faith with the willingness to take pitches the general manager praised when he signed the former Philadephia Phillies' outfielder. Chad Tracy, who won a job with the Nats this Spring after playing in Japan last year, came up with a big hit in the ninth and former Phillies' closer Brad Lidge, signed to a one-year/$1M dollar deal this winter when he couldn't find work as a closer, came on in the 9th with the Nats' regular closer Drew Storen on the DL to start the season, and saved the Nationals' first win of the 2012 season with the help of a great play by Gold Glove-winning third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who signed a 6-year/$100M dollar extension this Spring. But the most important factor of the game might have been the wind, which wasn't the Nats' GM's doing as far as we know.
Stephen Strasburg was dominant at times in his seven innings on the mound, throwing mostly fastballs early (at around 95-98mph) before working in the breaking stuff and the change later in the game. The 23-year-old right-hander, who's back to 100% after spending most of the 2010 campaign working his way back from Tommy John surgery, threw just 82 pitches in 7.0 IP, allowing a run in the fourth on a two-out single that followed a two-out walk that put a runner in scoring position. After the RBI single by the Cubs' Marlon Byrd in the fourth, the Nats' starter retired seven batters in a row before a leadoff single by Jeff Baker in the seventh. Baker was erased on a 5-4-3 DP, however, and one out later, Strasburg had retired 9 of 10 batters after the Cubs scored. 7.0 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 K's, 82 pitches, 58 strikes, 7/4 GO/FO.
34-year-old, 14-year-veteran Cubs' starter Ryan Dempster was even stronger, if you can believe that. The right-hander entered the game with a (9-1) record in 23 games and 15 GS going back to 1998 against the Nationals/Expos franchise, and he continued to dominate Nats' hitters this afternoon, allowing just 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER and 3 walks in 7.2 IP in which he struck out 10 Nationals. Dempster was lifted with two down in the eighth, however, and Cubs' reliever Kerry Wood walked three straight batters to force in the tying run.
Jayson Werth took the third of the three walks after Zimmerman worked a six-pitch walk and LaRoche battled for nine pitches before taking ball four. Werth started down 0-2, took a close 0-2 pitch outside, and then three more pitches that missed including a diving 3-2 slider down low. In a game in which he was 0 for 3 with a K and 5 LOB, it was the right fielder's patience at the plate which led to the tying run. In the top of the ninth, it was 31-year-old, seven-year veteran Chad Tracy, in his first major league game since October of 2010, who came up with the big hit when he took Carlos Marmol deep to right and off the ivy and brick-covered wall for a two-out double.
Tracy was replaced on the base paths by Brett Carroll, a veteran outfielder Nats' skipper Davey Johnson fell in love with this Spring, and Ian Desmond, an infielder Johnson's pumped up since he took over on the bench, came through with a two-out, opposite field RBI single to give the Nationals a 2-1 lead after eight and a half. Normally, '09 1st Round pick Drew Storen would have then come on to close out the win, but with the 24-year-old reliever on the DL, it was 35-year-old, World Series-winning closer Brad Lidge on the mound in the ninth, looking for the 224th save of his 10-year career.
Lidge wouldn't have had it without Ryan Zimmerman's help though. After a one-out triple by Cubs' infielder Ian Stewart it was the Gold Glove-winning third baseman who fielder a grounder off Jeff Baker's bat and threw home to get Stewart's pinch runner at the plate for the second out of the frame. Lidge then got Cubs' outfielder Marlon Byrd looking to end the game and preserve the 2-1 win. In a game in which the Nationals were 1 for 7 with RISP, leaving nine runners on base while striking out 10 times, a bases-loaded walk by their high-priced outfielder, a strong defensive play by their locked-up Face of the Franchise and a big hit and save by bargain-basement signings like Tracy and Lidge, respectively, combined with a 3-hit day by much-maligned infielder Ian Desmond to produce a season-opening win. Just like Mike Rizzo planned it. And I wonder if he wasn't behind that wind, though it did hurt Ryan Zimmerman on two well-struck fly ball outs.
"If you didn't like that ballgame, you don't like baseball," Nats' skipper Davey Johnson told reporters after the game. "Every pitch meant something, we hit a lot of balls hard, as did they, but the elements were conducive to pitching a heck of a ballgame." As for Werth's bases-loaded walk, Johnson said, "He likes to look at a lot of pitches and he did there." Brad Lidge told MLB Network Radio hosts Casey Stern and Jim Bowden after the game that it meant a lot to him to be given the opportunity to save the game, explaining, "I was really happy to get through Spring Training healthy and to get Davey's confidence there like you mentioned, but you're right, we have tons of guys down there that can get it done. I know Henry Rodriguez he'll probably have his shot to get out there a time or two as well, and we're all cheering for Drew [Storen] to get back, but in the meantime I love being out there in the ninth and I just appreciate having the opportunity to do it and help our team get a win." [Rizzo points to head.]