What can Nats take away from Opening Day loss?

March 30th, 2023

WASHINGTON -- For six weeks in Spring Training, the Nationals learned about the 2023 team. Their 7-2 loss to the Braves at Nationals Park on Thursday provided the first opportunity to see the club in regular-season action -- both what is clicking and what can be improved early on.

“It’s one game,” said manager Dave Martinez. “So we’ll forget about this one. We’ve got a day off tomorrow to get to rest a little bit, we’ll come back Saturday and try to go 1-0 Saturday.”

Here are three things we learned about the Nats in Game 1 of 162.

The bullpen was relied on early
As Opening Day approached, the Nationals weighed a number of criteria to finalize their bullpen for the start of the season. Among the priorities was the number of innings a reliever could stretch. That versatility was highlighted last year, when they were taxed by short starts, and Washington pursued depth again this season.

The importance of relief pitching was emphasized when the Nats' bullpen covered six innings in relief of left-hander Patrick Corbin on Thursday.

Corbin exited after throwing 85 pitches (48 strikes) in three-plus innings. He allowed four runs (two earned) on seven hits and three walks while striking out three.

"He just fell behind,” said Martinez. “When he’s ahead, he’s a much different guy. We've got to get him ahead and get him to finish."

The bullpen door first swung open with one on in the fourth inning, then right-handers Erasmo Ramírez, Mason Thompson, Hunter Harvey and Kyle Finnegan got the call, respectively, for their season debuts. Ramírez, Thompson and Harvey combined for five scoreless innings, with Ramírez (two hits, one walk and one strikeout) and Thompson (one hit and three strikeouts) tossing two frames apiece.

“I thought the bullpen came in, did a great job, kept us in the game,” said Corbin.

Corbin averaged just shy of five innings in his 31 starts last season, but he had looked solid in camp. He built up to six innings on March 20, when he allowed only one run, and he finished Spring Training with a 4.50 ERA, matching 15 strikeouts to two walks.

"He's got to pound the strike zone; he did a good job of that in spring,” Martinez said. “... Some unfortunate breaks with some of the hits they got early, but he's still got to attack the strike zone."

Abrams’ errors room for continued growth
The Nationals are looking for improved middle-infield defense from 22-year-olds CJ Abrams and Luis García to help their pitchers this season. In his first Opening Day with Washington, Abrams committed three errors at shortstop (two throwing, one fielding).

“I talked to CJ after the double play should have happened,” Martinez said. “Look, I’m going to be honest with you: They had a tough time seeing the ball as well. He didn't see the ball off the bat. But I told him, 'Hey, we play day games here. Those are plays that we need to make.'"

In the second inning with two on and one out, Abrams’ fielding error loaded the bases instead of ending the frame with a double play. He also had a throwing miscue in the fifth inning with two outs, then a second throwing error in the ninth that landed in the camera well next to the visitors' dugout to plate Travis d'Arnaud from third base.

"Maybe I rushed them,” Abrams said of the throwing errors. “On the play at third, I probably should have held it. But it happens."

Abrams is entering his first full season with the Nationals after being acquired from the Padres last August. He showed his potential by earning Electric Play of the Week recognition in September. Martinez noted there will be “growing pains” and “teaching moments” with a young middle infield. Abrams said of the possibility of Opening Day nerves, “A little bit, maybe, but there are no excuses. I’ve got to be better."

Looking for runs
Run support will be key in supporting the pitching and defense this season. Last season, the Nationals scored the third-fewest runs in the NL. The Nats had chances to add runs on Thursday, but they went 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position.

“We had some opportunities,” said Martinez. “We couldn’t get the job done there.”

Joey Meneses drove in Victor Robles on a line-drive single into center field in the fifth inning. Coming off last season’s hot hitting, the 30-year-old Meneses was 2-for-5 in his first Major League Opening Day.

“It’s a little difficult,” Meneses said of batting with runners in scoring position. “Sometimes as hitters, we just jump out early and take swings we don’t want to. We’ve just got to remain focused and stay within our strike zone and look for a particular pitch and just be more patient.”