All 11 Nationals Home Openers, Ranked

The Nationals may or may not play their 12th home opener in modern history this afternoon. Here is a definitive ranking of the previous 11 home openers.

11. 2010 – The Nats are blown out 11-1 by the Phillies. Worse, the stadium was filled with Phillies fans thanks, in part, to Stan Kastan’s policy of selling block tickets to out of town fans before individual tickets went on sale to the public. Coming off two horrific seasons in 2008 and 2009, there’s a good argument this day was the low point in Nationals history.

10. 2009 – The Nats entered the game 0-6 and left the game 0-7 after losing to the defending champion Phillies, 9-8. By the time this game ended we were all on notice that the 2009 season would be just as painful as 2008. One bright spot: Christian Guzman went five for five.

9. 2011 – It was cold. It wasn’t even April yet. Livan Hernandez turns in a quality performance in his last opening day start. But the Nats lose a lackluster 2-0 game to the Braves.

8. 2007 – The last opening day at RFK. John Patterson got rocked and the Nationals lost 9-2 to Dontrelle Willis and the Marlins. It was an inauspicious start to the beginning of the Manny Acta era.

7. 2006 – Everything about the home opener in 2006 was a little bit of a bummer. The team was already 2-5 on their way to 91 losses. Opening Day starter Ramon Ortiz gave up four runs and the Nats lost 7-1 to a superior Mets team. The excitement of the previous years home opener had already started to wear off. Can anyone name the leadoff hitter from the home opener in 2006? Anyone? Brandon Watson.

6. 2014 – Not great weather as the Nats lose 2-1 to the Braves in part due to the Justin Upton ground rule double fiasco. The loss wouldn’t be nearly as bad if it didn’t breathe more life into the annoying “the Nats can’t beat the Braves” narrative.

5. 2015 – Last season’s home opener started well. Great weather. Bryce Harper homering in his second at bat. Max Scherzer beginning his Nats career with 5 shutout innings. Unfortunately, a critical miscommunication between Dan Uggla and Ian Desmond on a routine pop-up opened the door to some Mets runs and the Nats bats were silenced by Bartolo Colon and the Mets bullpen (including recently traded Jerry Blevins). It was a foreshadow to a disappointing 2015 season. The Nats lost 3-1.

4. 2012 – Nationals win a 3-2 walk off against the Reds in the 10th inning after a blown save by closer Brad Lidge (spoiling a nice start by Gio Gonzalez). The win moved the Nats record to 5-2 to start the season. After quality end to 2011, we started to get the feeling that the Nationals were actually playoff contenders.

3. 2008 – The first game at Nats Park. The excitement of a new stadium puts this game high on the list. But Ryan Zimmerman’s walk off homerun in the 9th inning puts it higher. Unfortunately the temperature dropped steadily throughout the game. By the time Zim hit his homer, the stadium was half empty and freezing. Also, while the Opening Night walkoff provided a signature moment for the new stadium, nobody in that park thought the Nats would be contenders that season dampening some of the enthusiasm.

2. 2013 – Almost everything about Opening Day 2013 was perfect. Bryce Harper hit the first two good pitches he saw out of the ballpark. Stephen Strasburg nearly threw a shutout. And the game was over in record time. That season didn’t turn out as planned but on that day it looked like the Nats would be cruising to their second straight National League East title.

1. 2005 – This will be #1 forever. Everything was perfect. The President threw out the first pitch (and didn’t bounce it). Livan Hernandez threw a gem. Vinny Castilla almost hit for the cycle (thanks Lance Cormier). The stands were bouncing. Most importantly professional baseball was back in Washington DC.  It’ll never get better than Opening day 2005.

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Thoughts on the Nationals Opening Day 2016 win

The most instructive moment of yesterday’s 4-3 Opening Day win over Atlanta came in the top of the 10th inning, when Ryan Zimmerman hit a routine groundball to the shortstop position, which was then fielded by the shifted second basemen for the Braves, Gordon Beckham. As a frequent viewer of Nats-Braves games over the past few seasons, I instinctively assumed the play would result in an out the moment the ball was hit. The overwhelming majority of baseballs hit to the shortstop position against the Braves lately have resulted in outs, thanks to defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons, who often made the difficult plays routine and the routine plays automatic  Yesterday, however, Beckham fielded the ball and threw it so wide of the Braves’ first baseman, Zimmerman was able to move into scoring position with the game tied 3-3.  Daniel Murphy subsequently drove in the go-ahead run, and the Nationals won 4-3.

It was a free run—the kind of run often allowed by bad baseball teams. And it was given up by Gordon Beckham, the kind of quad-A journeyman employed by bad baseball teams whose priority isn’t winning but rebuilding. Simmons was traded this past offseason after the Braves deemed him a luxury they no longer needed. In return for Simmons, the Braves landed, among other players, consensus top-50 pitching prospect Sean Newcomb, who is still a year away from the Majors. Shortstop Dansby Swanson, the first overall pick in the 2015 draft and also a consensus Top-50 prospect, is also in the Braves minor league system. Someday he’ll take Simmons’ old position at shortstop, but right now he’s simply not ready and he’s definitely not needed. The Braves aren’t trying to win this season. They’re aiming for 2017 when their new stadium opens in Cobb County and their top farm system (as rated by ESPN’s Keith Law) begins to contribute at the major league level. When the Braves eventually have players like Newcomb and Swanson, they may be a tough team. But right now they’re stuffed with players like Beckham, who are essentially placeholders—they don’t require a long term financial commitment and they keep the team from wasting top prospects’ valuable pre-arbitration MLB service time.

It’s noteworthy this game was saved by Jonathan Papelbon, since he was jettisoned by another rebuilding NL East team currently not trying to compete—the Phillies. Philadelphia, like Atlanta, has a consensus top-10 system that might eventually make life difficult for Nationals. Right now, however, their roster has too many Gordon Beckhams. The real cavalry has yet to arrive.

The Nationals went 26-12 against the Braves and the Phillies last season. This is noteworthy because they were only 57-67 against the rest of baseball. Now, it’s not usual for playoff contenders to run up huge victory margins over bad teams in their division, but the Nats are uniquely positioned to have two potentially formidable rivals down at the same time. The Phillies sit on one of baseball’s biggest TV contracts, but haven’t yet flexed that financial muscle. The Braves’ new stadium in 2017 also promises new revenue the team has yet to utilize.

Tom Boswell wrote a preseason column a few weeks ago predicting 2018 as “the year” for the current Washington Nationals. In 2018, Boswell argued, Bryce Harper will be in the final year of Nats’ team control and top Nats prospects Trea Turner and Lucas Giolito will be hitting their primes. Well. Max Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman will have left their primes. And most importantly, the Nats current top prospects will presumably be squaring off against the products of the Braves’ and Phillies’ more abundant farm systems.

Yogi Berra said it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. The Braves’ current wave of prospects may fizzle. Same for the Phillies. Same for Giolito and Turner. Present day reminds us, however, the Nats best window to win might be right now. An Opening Day win, assisted by a journeyman placeholder on a team more concerned about the first pick of the 2017 draft than a pennant race, tells us it’s best not to wait for 2018.