When the Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals, baseball returned to the nation’s capital for the first time in 33 years.
Fans and front office staff both likely knew that a perilous slog lay before the new Nationals franchise, but that didn’t stop the fans from showing up. Nearly two-and-a-quarter million clicked the turnstiles at RFK Stadium to watch the new club, a total that clocked in at 11th in the majors on the season.
They went 81-81. Not bad, but that was good for only fifth in the National League East.
But as the Nationals became more the Nationals and less the Expos, the team’s record reflected it, not turning a winning record over the next six seasons.
After that, however, over the subsequent eight seasons, the Nationals didn’t finish below .500. More than that, they only failed to make the playoffs three times out of those eight seasons.
And, of course, the young Washington franchise has now seen a World Series title.
Not bad for a team going into its 16th season in DC.
For this piece, I want to focus on the starting pitchers for each Opening Day. I want to see how they performed in that game and over the course of their careers. They’ve only had six unique Opening Day starters over 15 years, thanks in large part to the work of Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer.
We’ll start with season one, a road game in Philadelphia:
Hernández started three Openings Day games for Washington, his first coming in the team’s first game on April 4, 2005. It was a mid-afternoon game at Citizens Bank Park, a cool 59 degrees with strong 24 mph winds at first pitch. Jon Lieber started for the Phillies. He went 5.2 innings, scattering 10 hits, and allowing three runs. Hernández, on the other hand, struggled out of the gate. He only managed 4.2 innings, allowing eight hits and seven runs. The Nationals dropped the game, 8-4. Hernández finished the season with a 3.98 ERA and a 15-10 record, and made an All-Star appearance, the second and final of his career.
Nationals Opening Day Record: 0-1.
April 3, 2006, saw the Nats on the road again, this time in New York to take on the Mets. Tom Glavine was the starting pitcher for the Mets; while of course, Hernández took the mound for Washington. Better results this time out for the Nationals, as a pitchers’ duel ensued. Hernández managed to go six innings, surrendering eight hits and allowing three runs. Glavine, however, was better, mirroring innings pitched at six, but only allowing one run on six hits. Billy Wagner got the save. Hernández finished the season with a 4.83 ERA and a 13-13 record, spending time in both Washington and Arizona.
Nationals Opening Day Record: 0-2.
Four seasons passed between Hernández’s second Nats Opening Day start and his third and final start. He also passed through four organizations over that time, making stops in Arizona, Minnesota, Colorado, and New York (Mets). But on March 31, 2011, he was back in DC, this time to take on the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park. Another pitcher’s duel broke out, with Hernández going 6.1 innings, allowing four hits and two runs. But Derek Lowe and the Braves staff gave up nothing, allowing five combined hits and no runs. Craig Kimbrel got the save. Over 29 starts that season, Hernández went 8-13 with a 4.47 ERA.
Nationals Opening Day Record: 0-3.
Hernández spent more time with the Expos/Nationals in his career than anywhere else (totaling seven seasons). He pitched to a 3.98 ERA with the franchise, logging an ERA+ of 106, both of which are the best marks of his career. And since it was over a period of seven years, it was largely a sustained effort from Hernández. In 2012, after he departed Washington, Hernández spent some time with the Braves, and then with the Milwaukee Brewers, and 2012 was the final year of his career, and he ended it with a 4.44 ERA and a WAR of 30.
Patterson spent parts of six seasons in MLB, splitting time with the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Expos/Nationals. On April 2, 2007, Patterson got the nod to open the season on the mound. It was a game scheduled for a 1:05 start time at RFK, the host team taking on the Florida Marlins. Patterson struggled to open the season. He made it only 3.2 innings, giving up seven hits and six runs, all earned. Dontrelle Willis was the opposition, and he managed to go six innings with seven hits and two runs. Marlins win, 9-2.
Nationals Opening Day Record: 0-4.
This was also Patterson’s last season in MLB, starting only seven games, racking up a 7.47 ERA and going 1-5 along the way. By the time his career was over, he was worth five wins, going 18-25 with a 4.32 ERA.
In 2008, Pérez took to the mound to begin the season. On March 30, 2008, the Braves were in town for a season opening meeting with the Nationals. Tim Hudson took the ball for Atlanta. Pérez tossed five innings, giving up four hits and only one run. Jon Rauch would end up blowing the save for Washington, but a bottom of the ninth Ryan Zimmerman home run sent the fans home happy. Nationals win, 3-2.
That was the only season Pérez spent in Washington, and it was his final season in MLB. He had spent most of his time with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but made two more stops in Atlanta and Kansas City before heading to DC. He started 30 games that year, going 7-12 with a 4.34 ERA.
Nationals Opening Day Record: 1-4.
Lannan looked as though he might become a cornerstone for the Nationals’ rotation. He made two Opening Day starts, one in 2009 and one in 2010. He would also be the last unique Opening Day starter before the Strasburg/Scherzer tandem took over.
On April 6, 2009, the Nationals hit the road for South Florida to take on the Marlins. A late afternoon start saw a Marlin onslaught of offense. Lannan only lasted three innings, while allowing six runs on six hits. Almost every pitcher that day (there were five of them) for the Nationals allowed at least one run. Ricky Nolasco, on the other side, wasn’t exactly good. He managed six innings but allowed five runs. That’s all Washington would get, though, until they scored one off Logan Kensing in the ninth, the game by then out of reach. Marlins win, 12-6.
Nationals Opening Day Record: 1-5.
A year later, on April 5, 2010, the Nationals were back home to greet the Phillies. Over 41,000 packed in Nationals Park to witness the start of another season. Lannan was back out on the mound. He got through his first three innings without much trouble, but then the Phillies hung a five spot on Washington, all runs attributed to Lannan. Philadelphia would also score five runs off Miguel Batista, en route to an 11-1 victory.
Nationals Opening Day Record: 1-6.
Lannan was in the majors for eight years, mostly with Washington. His final year in DC came in 2012, when he was up and down between the parent club and Triple-A. He started six games in his final Nats’ season. He then spent parts of two seasons in other National League East destinations, Philadelphia and New York.
The lefty finished his career with a 4.18 ERA with an ERA+ of 98. Lannan had three good seasons in Washington, going back to 2008 (3.91 ERA), 2009 (3.88 ERA), and 2011 (3.70 ERA).
Strasburg made his major league debut on June 8, 2010, nearly two years before his first Opening Day start, which came on Thursday, April 5, 2012 – a game at Wrigley Field to take on the Chicago Cubs. Incidentally, this was also the year Washington turned things around.
Ryan Dempster was the opposing pitcher for Chicago. Matching each other well, neither pitcher would end up with a decision. Strasburg went seven innings, allowing five hits, and giving up one run. Dempster, on the other side, went 7.2 innings, allowing only two hits and one run. In the end, a ninth inning RBI single from Ian Desmond gave the Nationals the win, 2-1.
Nationals Opening Day Record: 2-6.
Strasburg made three consecutive Opening Day starts, the second coming on April 1, 2013, a game at Nationals Park against the Marlins. He dominated that start, going seven innings, allowing only three hits, while giving up no runs. The Nationals won, 2-0.
Nationals Opening Day Record: 3-6.
His third consecutive Opening Day start was a March 31st affair in 2014, a game held at Citi Field for a date with the Mets. It was a hitters’ affair, and while Strasburg did pitch six innings and racked up 10 strikeouts, he gave up four runs. The bullpen would also surrender three additional runs. But it was no problem for the Nats’ offense, which scored nine runs in that game. A 9-7 final belonged to Washington.
Nationals Opening Day Record: 4-6.
The last time Strasburg opened up the season for the Nationals was on April 3, 2017, when Miami came to town. The Nationals took the win, 4-2, and Strasburg was strong again. He went seven innings, giving up six hits and two runs. Sammy Solis and Blake Treinen pitched one clean frame apiece to close out the afternoon.
Nationals Opening Day Record: 5-6.
Strasburg, of course, is still pitching in the nation’s capital – the only franchise he’s ever been with. He’s spent parts of 10 years in Major League Baseball, reaching All-Star status three times (2012, 2016, 2017). By ERA, his best season was that ’17 campaign, when he pitched to a tune of 2.52 over 28 starts. A year ago, he racked up his highest single season innings total at 209, which also led the National League. Additionally, “Stras” was the winning pitcher in games two and six in the World Series.
Scherzer has started four Opening Day games for the Nationals, which includes the last two. On April 6, 2015, his first season in Washington, Scherzer was on the mound. This game saw the Nationals matched up with the Mets. Despite Scherzer’s strong, 7.2 inning, four hit, three run (none earned) performance, New York took the game, 3-1.
Nationals Opening Day Record: 5-7.
An April 4, 2016, affair took place at Turner Field in Atlanta. Scherzer was back on the hill. It took extra innings for the Nationals to pull this one out, 4-3, and saw Scherzer pitching seven innings, allowing three hits, and two runs.
Nationals Opening Day Record: 6-7.
When, on March 30, 2017, Scherzer took the mound in Cincinnati, he was in peak form. He tossed six scoreless innings, scattering five hits, and striking out 10, while only walking one. Homer Bailey was his opponent, and pitched well, but Washington won, 2-0.
Nationals Opening Day Record: 7-7.
Finally, on March 29, 2019, Scherzer made another Opening Day start for the Nationals (and to this point, the last one anyone has made), against the Mets at Nationals Park. It was a pitchers’ duel and stayed 1-0 until the eighth inning when the Mets added one more. Scherzer took the loss, but he went 7.2 innings, gave up two hits and two runs, but struck out 12 batters. But the offense just couldn’t get going against Jacob deGrom. The Nationals lost, 2-0.
Nationals Opening Day Record: 7-8.
Beginning in 2008, Scherzer has pitched for three different organizations, beginning in Arizona with the Diamondbacks for two years before cementing himself as an ace in Detroit for five years with the Tigers. Now, with the Nationals, he has a chance to cement his legacy in Washington. Once this season resumes, Mad Max will have spent more time in DC than anywhere else. He’s been an All-Star for the last seven seasons, starting in 2013 with the Tigers.
He’s led his league, or even all of baseball, in several categories throughout his career, including wins, games started, complete games, shutouts, innings pitched, strikeouts for three consecutive years between 2016 and 2018, FIP, WHIP, among other categories. Despite entering his age 35 season, Scherzer shows no real signs of slowing down.