Wednesday, April 3, 2013
Ready for the grind
There are few baseball traditions worse than the day after Opening Day off-day. I understand why MLB schedules it like that -- in case of a rainout, it allows everyone who held Opening Day tickets to still attend the first game of the season -- but it's still a frustrating quirk for managers, players and media members alike.
Managers and players, because baseball is such an everyday sport and the immediate off day throws them out of whack. Media members, because we have to come up with something to talk about for 48 hours in between games, and the only way to fill that much time and space is to rehash every minute detail from Opening Day. (Hey, how 'bout that perfectly executed, 7-2-3-4-2 double play by the Nationals' defense!)
By the time 7:05 p.m. arrives tonight, the Opening Day hoopla will have ended and the true grind of the baseball season will begin. This is when we start learning what a team is really all about. And there are several things we could learn about the Nationals tonight when they re-take the field against the Marlins...
CAN GIO GONZALEZ GET OFF ON THE RIGHT FOOT?
You've probably forgotten about it since he proceeded to win 21 games and put himself in the discussion for NL Cy Young, but Gio Gonzalez really struggled in his first start last season. The lefty lasted only 3 2/3 innings in Chicago, getting roughed up for four runs on seven hits and three walks.
Nobody expects Gonzalez to labor like that tonight, but it would be good for him in particular to get his season off on the right foot. Despite his brilliant regular season, he was highly erratic during the NLDS against the Cardinals, barely able to throw a strike in Game 1 at Busch Stadium and then unable to drive a stake through St. Louis' heart after his teammates handed him a 6-0 lead in Game 5 at Nationals Park.
Gonzalez has a knack for getting caught up in the moment when pitching on a big stage, something he admitted this spring when revisiting his playoff struggles. The good news is, he was incredibly sharp and composed while pitching for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic last month. The fact Gio has already pitched (and pitched well) in a big game this year should help ease whatever butterflies he might get for his first outing of the regular season.
WILL DREW STOREN APPEAR, AND IN WHICH INNING?
His team up two runs late on Monday, Davey Johnson had to decide which member of his bullpen to hand the ball for the top of the eighth inning. He could have chosen Drew Storen, perhaps an overt display of confidence for the former closer who with the addition of Rafael Soriano has been relegated to setup duties. Instead, Johnson went with Tyler Clippard.
Davey's reasons were sound: He liked the matchup of Clippard vs. Marlins pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs, and the right-hander dominated all spring. The question is whether Johnson will go back to Clippard or go instead to Storen if the Nationals hold a late lead again tonight.
The way he described it last week, Johnson figures to alternate between the two as his setup men, using Clippard as the eighth-inning guy in his "A" bullpen and Storen as the eighth-inning guy in his "B" bullpen. But every manager enters a season with a plan for bullpen use, only to alter it along the way based on performance and injuries. It'll be especially interesting to see how Johnson ultimately uses Storen.
DOES BRYCE HARPER HAVE ANY MORE HEROICS IN HIM?
The great thing about Bryce Harper's Opening Day performance was the fact he homered in each of his two at-bats, this after hitting .478 for the spring. The bad thing about it was the fact everyone now will expect nothing less than MVP-worthy stuff from Harper in each subsequent game.
Let's be honest: Harper isn't going to hit two home runs every night. But he will face a favorable matchup tonight in Kevin Slowey. The 28-year-old right-hander, picked up by Miami after he went 0-8 with a 6.67 ERA last season in Minnesota, wasn't supposed to open the year as the Marlins' No. 2 starter. But after both Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez landed on the disabled list at the last minute, Slowey was bumped all the way up to the No. 2 slot.
You've got to figure Harper will be licking his chops when he steps into the batter's box in the bottom of the first inning. And you've got to assume the crowd will perk up with anticipation.
We can only wait and see how he follows up his brilliant Opening Day.