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Baseball the way it should be played

If memory serves, that’s what a huge banner on the outside of Shea Stadium said throughout the 1986 season, during which Davey Johnson’s Mets won the World Series. Today, 27 years later, Johnson’s Washington Nationals played baseball the way it should be played during a 2-0 win over the Miami Marlins on Opening Day.

The team’s two phenoms, Bryce Harper and Steven Strasburg, provided the heroics. Harper contributed the home runs that supplied the “2,” while Strasburg contributed 7 innings of 3-hit ball that went a long way toward supplying the “0.”

Throughout the off-season, Nats fans were buzzing about the possibility that the 20-year old Harper will make a run at the League’s Most Valuable Player award. I wasn’t buying it. Last season, Harper’s first the big leagues, there was too much lunging at pitches; too much over-aggression early in the count that created too many 0-2 counts; and too many ill-advised throws from the outfield that ceded too many bases to the opposition. Surely, not all of this could be cured in one season.

But the news from training camp caused me to think that perhaps it could be. Harper batted a cool .478 this spring.

Today, Harper belted home runs in his first two plate appearances. The first came off of a slow curve, the pitch that seemed to trouble Harper the most at times last year. The second came off of what looked like a hard slider on a 3-2 pitch. Both were off of Miami pitcher Ricky Nolasko, who was pitching brilliantly and who has baffled the Nats in the past. Indeed, Harper’s two homers were the only hits Nolasko yielded through 4 innings. Overall, he yielded only three in 6.

Harper also helped make the play of the game for the Nats. In the top of the seventh inning, with one out and Miami runners on first and third, Harper caught a fly ball in medium left field and threw a bullet to home plate. The runner on third had wisely decided not to challenge Harper, but the runner on first moved towards second, perhaps trying to get in a run-down during which the runner on third would score.

Nats catcher Wilson Ramos obliged with a throw toward second base. Sure enough, when the runner on third tried to score, he was cut down by a mile at the plate.

Baseball the way it should be played.

As for Strasburg, he was in complete control for six innings. Even in the seventh, one of the two Miami hits might better have been scored an error on Ian Desmond.

Strasburg was a model of effiency, walking no one and striking out only three. The result? Seven innings completed with only 80 pitches.

You might say that Strasburg pitched to contact, as the current jargon would have it. But I would say he pitched to weak contact, often using a 96 mile per hour fastball to set up a soft out on a change-up or a curve ball.

Rafael Soriano, Washington’s new closer, also deserves mention. He closed out the Marlins 1-2-3 in the top of the ninth, striking out two batters, including the dangerous Giancarlo Stanton.

Soriano was commanding and even a bit imperious-looking on the hill. Every pitch, it seemed, was at the knees and on a corner. Most of the strikes were called, the Marlin hitters figuring it was better to take their chances with the umpire than to hit a ground ball out to second base.

One game certainly doesn’t make a season. Harper likely will have his ups and downs, as nearly all players do. And teams that looked as good as the Nats do on paper have played .500 ball over the course of the long season.

But baseball is a sport in which the naive can dream of the championship before the season starts and hardened cynics like me can dream of it after one game — as long as the Nats keep playing baseball the way it should be played.

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