Nationals get serious as clubs gear for opening day

VIERA, Fla. – Thoughts of opening day begin to take shape 10 days out or so. In other words: right about now. A butterfly flutters. Then another. By the time the calendar flips to April, players' bellies feel like the winter monarch aggregation.

That would be about 25,000 strong.

And so it was over the weekend that urgency commenced for the Washington Nationals, a team with lofty expectations heading into 2012. A winless stretch reached 11 games. Bryce Harper was already in minor-league camp. Injuries were piling up. Starters were getting shelled. The team was batting .240. And opening day was less than two weeks away.

The time had come to take off the governor and go full speed.

Manager Davey Johnson decided to play his regulars an entire game. Stephen Strasburg, who will be the opening-day starter, was lights out for five innings. Jayson Werth hit a majestic home run that was stepped off by a Washington Post reporter at 492 feet; it hit a palm tree and dropped on top of Werth's truck.

On Monday, John Lannan pitched five strong innings, striking out five and inducing routine ground balls with his sinker as the Nationals defeated the Houston Astros. Outscored 26-4 in the last three games of the winless skein, Washington won two in a row by a combined score of 19-4.

"Spring training games do not count," center fielder Roger Bernadina said, "but this is more like it."

The Nats are supposed to be a team on the rise. Some experts predict they will contend in the National League East. Others say they are a year away. Either way, just about everybody likes the direction they are headed. A 7-13 Grapefruit League record doesn't dampen that impression.

Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson allowing 29 hits and 22 runs in 13 innings over three consecutive games last week, however, does. Along with Strasburg and Lannan, they form a rotation that must match distinctly more decorated ones in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Miami if Washington is indeed going to play meaningful games in September.

You know, the month a whole new bellyful of butterflies make themselves known.

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Right now, though, it's all about being ready for opening day, which is why 10 days out necessity shows itself in several forms. Starters are pushed beyond 80 pitches. Position players are getting four and five at-bats. Managers are employing game strategy. The signs were all over the Grapefruit League on Monday.

Jon Lester pitched seven scoreless innings for the Boston Red Sox; Mark Buehrle went six for the Miami Marlins; Matt Holliday got four at-bats for the St. Louis Cardinals; Johan Santana faced 23 batters for the New York Mets.

No, the scores don't matter. All five NL East teams have losing spring records even though the division is expected to one of baseball's strongest. But results – batters squaring up pitches, pitchers commanding off-speed stuff, catchers throwing out base stealers – are increasingly noticed by managers and front office decision-makers.

Johnson, given to golf analogies, compared a spring training game to a day at the driving range.

"There's no flag or fairway out there," he said.

A day earlier he made a point to Strasburg about not overthrowing by asking him if he tries to hit a golf ball 400 yards off the tee. "Three hundred and in the fairway is a better shot," he said.

Urgency, though, creeps into Johnson's voice the more he talks about some players who are still struggling. It's late March. Everyone can envision "going north." It's nearly time to begin packing.

He said Gonzalez, a prize acquisition from the Oakland Athletics, is going through a "dead arm" period. He said a hard thrower like Jackson is always the last to gain his command in spring. This was Lannan's first strong start because "left-handers take longer" to round into shape. He wasn't offering excuses so much as staving off impatience.

Lannan, who led the Nats with 11 wins last season, has been the subject of trade rumors to the Detroit Tigers, although a serious groin injury to starter Chien-Ming Wang perhaps has made Lannan indispensable for now. The only other rotation option would be Ross Detwiler, a 2007 first-round draft pick who has a 3.86 ERA in 11 spring innings but seemingly has never had the full confidence of his coaches.

Other Nats injured include young closer Drew Storen (elbow inflammation), slugging left fielder Michael Morse (right lat strain) and first baseman Adam LaRoche (bruised foot). The left-handed hitting LaRoche could be ready by opening day and Johnson plans to platoon him with Mark DeRosa, a notion LaRoche isn't happy about.

"I'll be ready to play opening day," he said. "I'm being extra cautious. Opening day is what's important. It's all about opening day."

As the calendar is readied to flip to April, those two words are spoken with greater frequency. Opening day is just around the corner. It's on everyone's mind. Here come the butterflies.

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