Apr 3, 2014, 6:04 PM EDT
NEW YORK — It surely takes more than three games for a ballclub to establish an identity, and there’s no telling what may transpire over the next 5 7/8 months to shape the 2014 Washington Nationals.
But Matt Williams and Mike Rizzo wanted to put together a resilient team, one that obviously is loaded with talent but more importantly boasts the maturity, intensity and depth that so often is required to win ballgames when talent alone isn’t enough.
In that regard, the season’s first three games resoundingly were a success for the Nationals, who with an 8-2 thumping of the Mets on Thursday afternoon completed a three-game sweep at Citi Field and perhaps let the rest of the baseball world know they mean business this year.
“Regardless of results at this point — we all want to win, of course — but the way they’re going about it is pleasing to everybody,” said Williams, who now sports a 3-0 career record as a big-league manager. “I think they’re proud of the way they’ve played so far, and so am I.”
Williams was tested plenty in his first series as skipper, dealing with injuries to Wilson Ramos and Bryce Harper, a wild Opening Day game that required an inordinate number of tough decisions and then another surprise dilemma Thursday morning when scheduled starter Jordan Zimmermann had to be scratched with a nasty stomach virus.
Enter Tanner Roark, the mild-mannered right-hander who had planned all along to start Friday’s home opener against the Braves but now was told three hours prior to first pitch that he would be throwing that pitch at Citi Field, not Nationals Park.
Some pitchers, creatures of routine and preparation, would be thrown off by a sudden change of plans like that.
Roark? It takes a lot more than that to faze him.
“I just go with the flow,” he said. “Whatever they tell me to do, that’s what I’m here for. If they want me to pitch whenever, I’ll pitch then. It’s basically up to them. I just get the ball and go.”
Roark’s afternoon didn’t exactly get off to a rousing start. He gave up two runs on three hits and a walk in the bottom of the first, putting the Nationals in an early hole for the third straight game. But as Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez did before him, Roark buckled down and turned his start around, tossing five scoreless innings after the shaky first and giving his teammates a chance to rally.
Which they did, thanks to another well-balanced offensive attack that pounded out eight runs on 13 hits against starter Zack Wheeler and a beleaguered Mets bullpen that allowed 12 runs in 9 1/3 total innings during this series.
“It’s a good group of guys. There’s never any panic,” said Danny Espinosa, who drilled a pair of opposite-field doubles in his first start of 2014. “At no point did I ever see any panic. We have an older group of guys who have a lot of time in big leagues, and a younger group that has a decent amount and everyone is kind of relaxed and just goes about playing their game. At no point did I see any panic in the dugout.”
Perhaps some of that comes from the new manager, a fiery player in his heyday but a calming influence now that he’s in the dugout calling the shots. Williams has entrusted nearly everybody on his 25-man roster to make a meaningful contribution already in this young season.
And, so far, it has worked. The Nationals have played good baseball, getting quality performances from their starting pitchers, dominant showings from their bullpen and offensive production from up and down the lineup and bench.
And because of it, they head home with a 3-0 record. That may be a mere footnote by season’s end — the 2013 Nationals opened 3-0 and finished out of the playoff race — but it certainly beats the alternative.
“It’s better than 0-3,” said Ryan Zimmerman, who went 4-for-5 with a homer on Thursday. “But it’s early. I’ll take it. It’s always good to win games. We’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing these last three.”
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