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Ian Desmond drives in the winning run with a ninth-inning single.
The calendar said it was April 5. The vibe throughout Wrigley Field suggested otherwise.
"It seemed like a playoff game," LaRoche said. "It really did."
Get used to that feeling, folks. The tension and high drama that was present throughout the Nationals' 2-1 victory -- especially during the insanely intense eighth and ninth innings -- could become commonplace over the next six months. Maybe seven months.
Sure, Opening Day has a way of magnifying everything. Perhaps the stakes won't feel quite as high on May 8 in Pittsburgh or August 6 in Houston. But the kind of ballgame the Nationals played today -- low-scoring, the outcome hanging in the balance til the very end -- is probably going to be the norm for this club.
"If you didn't like that ballgame, you don't like baseball," manager Davey Johnson said. "That was ... every pitch meant something."
Indeed, from the moment Ian Desmond stepped to the plate and sent the very first pitch of the season into right field for a single, til the moment Brad Lidge caught Marlon Byrd looking at a slider at the knees in the bottom of the ninth, it felt like a lot was riding on every single pitch.
This is how the Nationals were constructed. They know they're going to win on the strength of their deep pitching staff ... and the hope they can scratch together a couple of runs.
For seven innings on a bone-chilling afternoon at the corner of Clark and Addison, it didn't look like they would be able to scratch together anything. Desmond hit that first pitch of the day from Ryan Dempster, and then the Nationals went silent until Desmond got Dempster once again for a base hit in the top of the eighth.
Not that a few guys didn't manage to hit the ball hard. They just fell victim to a harsh wind blowing in off Lake Michigan that turned every well-struck ball in the air into a routine flyout.
"It's a grind here with the wind doing what it was," LaRoche said. "I'm on deck and [Ryan Zimmerman] hits the ball maybe as hard as I've ever seen a ball hit. And it gets caught. ... It's cold. It's windy. It can be frustrating as a hitter, but you still have to go out there and play."
So the Nationals slogged their way through those first seven innings, hoping Stephen Strasburg could hold the Cubs in check as well and keep this game within reach. The young ace did just that, allowing one run over seven superb innings made possible by his remarkable efficiency.
All spring, Strasburg talked about his desire to pound the strike zone early, get quick outs and keep his pitch count low. And boy did he do that in the first Opening Day start of his career.
Strasburg needed only seven pitches to navigate through the first inning. Then he needed only seven more to cruise through the second inning. Johnson had said earlier in the day he would let his ace throw anywhere from 80 to 100 pitches. At the rate he was going, Strasburg could've gone the distance ... and then started the nightcap of a doubleheader.
"Just going out there and trying to pound the strike zone early," the right-hander said. "I think that [swinging early] is something hitters are going to try and do throughout the season, and the rest of my career. Swing early, because they don't want to get to two strikes."
Strasburg did record five strikeouts, four of them coming in a stretch of six batters midway through the game. By the time he finished the seventh, his pitch count stood at only 82. He easily could have stayed in the game, but down a run, Johnson needed to pinch-hit for him.
His afternoon finished, Strasburg could have retreated to the clubhouse to ice his arm, as is standard practice for starting pitchers. Not on this day, though. He wanted to remain in the dugout until the final out was recorded, wanted to see his teammates rally to win.
"Oh yeah," Strasburg said. "I mean, especially today, being at Wrigley, I was going to watch the rest of the game for sure."
The game-tying rally wasn't so much a rally as a walk-fest. Zimmerman, LaRoche and Jayson Werth all drew free passes off Wood in the eighth, with Werth battling back from an 0-2 count to force in the run that made it a 1-1 game.
"The last pitch came out of his hand funny," he said. "It was a ball out of the hand, so that made that easy."
The winning rally featured a couple of base hits, at long last, though the first came from a surprising source: Chad Tracy.
The journeyman corner infielder -- relegated to playing in Japan last year -- was never supposed to make the Nationals' Opening Day roster. But a late injury to Rick Ankiel opened the door, and Tracy took advantage of the opportunity he got, launching a two-out double off the right-field wall to ignite the ninth-inning rally.
"I've been saying the last few days since I made the team, just the opportunity to be here is very special to me," he said. "And to be able to come through for the team is even more special."
Tracy's double set the stage for Desmond to deliver one more time. He had already been on base three times, scoring the tying run in the eighth. Now he poked a single to right off Chicago closer Carlos Marmol, allowing pinch-runner Brett Carroll to easily score the run that put the Nationals on top, 2-1.
"Hitting the ball in the air today was pretty useless," Desmond said. "I just wanted to hit the hardest groundball I could. I pulled off it a little bit, but it worked."
That description pretty much applied to the Nationals as a whole today. They didn't quite do everything in picture-perfect fashion -- witness Lidge needing to pitch his way around a one-out triple in the bottom of the ninth -- but they made it work.
They got a great pitching performance. They produced at the plate when they absolutely needed to. And they ended the day high-fiving each other at the center of the diamond.
"What a way to start the season off," Strasburg said.
Better get used to it, everyone.