WASHINGTON — All it took was two at-bats on his first opening day in the majors for Bryce Harper to hit two homers – and hear some “M-V-P!” chants.
The Washington Nationals’ other recent No. 1 overall draft pick, Stephen Strasburg, did his part, too, getting 19 consecutive outs at one stretch of his seven scoreless innings.
For the reigning NL East champion Nationals, the present and future could hardly have looked brighter in a 2-0 victory over the Miami Marlins on Monday, Game 1 of a season that lame-duck manager Davey Johnson declared months ago should be defined as “World Series or bust.”
“You couldn’t draw it up any better,” Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “And to have the two youngsters go out, do what they did? … Let Harper and Stras go to work. They didn’t need us.”
Harper, the 20-year-old left fielder coming off NL Rookie of the Year honors, hit solo shots off Ricky Nolasco in the first and fourth innings. He sprinted around the bases both times, and after his second trip, he climbed back out of the dugout for a curtain call, pumping his right fist.
“You just shake your head in amazement. You don’t see that too often from anybody, period. But to see him as a 20-year-old? He’s just writing a book right now,” new Nationals center fielder Denard Span said. “And he does it so calm, too.”
Harper began last year in the minors before getting called up later in April.
“Pretty special moment,” he said. “If I was 0 for 4, or 4 for 4, it wouldn’t have mattered to me. Just going out there having some fun on opening day for the first time.”
For the 24-year-old Strasburg (1-0), this marked the start of what should be his first full season in the majors, with zero pitch or inning limits. Shut down before the stretch run in September in 2012, he was dominant against a trade-depleted Marlins lineup that features Giancarlo Stanton and little else.
The right-hander went seven innings, matching his career high, allowing three hits against three strikes and zero walks. He threw only 80 pitches.
Asked whether he could have pitched longer, he said: “If it wasn’t opening day and the first start of the year, it would have been a different story.”
“I looked up in the sixth inning and he had, like, 65 pitches. I was like, ‘Wow.’ He has come a long way. Early on in his career, you look up in the sixth inning, and he’s close to 100 pitches,” teammate Ian Desmond said. “If he wants to be the workhorse that he is, he’s going to have to pitch more games like this.”
Harper and Strasburg are only the second pair of top picks in baseball’s June amateur draft to start an opening-day game for the team that chose them, and the 100-loss seasons in 2008 and 2009 that gave Washington the right to those selections seem quite distant nowadays.
“It’s amazing how far this club’s gone since I was playing against ‘em years ago and we’d come into Washington and it was awful,” LaRoche said. “It was a bad ballpark. It was a bad club.”
Before the game, the Nationals celebrated their 98-win 2012 by unveiling a sign atop the outfield scoreboard that proclaims them “NL East Division Champions.” A regular-season Nationals Park-record crowd of 45,274 was rowdy all afternoon.
“They really were loud and crazy,” Harper said. “Hopefully they’re going to be like that all year.”
They gave Harper a standing ovation in the sixth inning before his third at-bat against Nolasco (0-1). Ever unpredictable, Harper squared up to bunt, taking a ball, and wound up with a flyout to left.
He hit a curveball for his first homer, a slider for his second.
“Didn’t make the best pitches to him, and he didn’t miss ‘em. That’s what hitters do,” said Nolasco, who gave up three hits in six innings.
Juan Pierre led off the game by singling to center off Strasburg, and that was all the Marlins could muster until the seventh. That’s when Stanton -8 who else, on a team with a payroll under $45 million? – doubled to left, ending the streak of 19 plate appearances, 19 outs for Miami.
Placido Polanco followed with an infield single, putting runners on the corners. The next batter, Rob Brantly, hit a fly to Harper in left. Harper threw home, but Stanton didn’t go. Instead, Polanco strayed off first base, and wound up getting caught in a rundown. Eventually, Stanton did try to score, but he was thrown out for an odd-as-can-be double play officially scored 7-2-3-4-2.
“He just got caught in no man’s land there. That happens,” Marlins rookie manager Mike Redmond said. “We gave them an extra out there.”
With some sprinkles falling, Johnson turned to his bullpen, considered a strength of the team last year until blowing a two-run lead in the ninth inning against the Cardinals in Game 5. Tyler Clippard threw the eighth Monday, and closer Rafael Soriano, a free agent from the Yankees, provided a perfect ninth, striking out Stanton to end it.
Soriano celebrated by untucking his jersey, drawing roars from the spectators eager to see that over and over again in 2013.
“The way that it’s changed in a quick five or six years, the outlook for this team,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said, “it’s exciting for all of us.”