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Nats Seek to Meet Expectations

Stacy M. Brown and Barrington M. Salmon | 4/3/2013, 11:19 a.m.

Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper are the primary reasons expectations are sky high in Washington and the duo opened the 2013 season wasting little time in displaying just why the Nationals are favorites to win the first pennant in franchise history.

Strasburg, the 24-year-old ace, threw seven shutout innings on Opening Day while the 20-year-old Harper belted two home runs to help the Nats beat the Miami Marlins, 2-0, in front of 45,274, a Nationals Park record crowd.

Strasburg allowed just three hits and struck out three. He retired 19 straight Marlin batters following a single by Juan Pierre to lead off the game.

Harper's heroics included a first inning dinger to right field and a prodigious blast three innings later that resulted in the sell-out crowd giving its first curtain call of the season. Harper became only the second reigning Rookie of the Year Award winner to hit a home run on Opening Day the next season.

"It was a pretty special moment," Harper said. "If I was 0 for 4, or 4 for 4, it wouldn't have mattered to me. The crowd was really loud and crazy and, hopefully, they're going to be like that all year."

As a light rain fell, manager Davey Johnson lifted Strasburg after seven innings and 80 pitches, but insisted that the flame-thrower will not be on an innings or specific pitch count this year. The team shut Strasburg down in September of last season and many observers and fans said the move cost the Nats a World Series berth.

Johnson, who received his Manager of the Year award in a festive pre-game ceremony, said he's confident that his squad is ready to fulfill the lofty expectations of 2013 after winning a league high 98 games and its first division championship in 2012.

"I think the development of this ball club can culminate at the end of this year (with a championship)," Johnson, 70, said.

First baseman Adam LaRouche, 33, said the team's ascent into a World Series contender is clear, judging by the atmosphere surrounding the home opener.

Pre-game ceremonies lasted more than 45 minutes and included the presentation of Silver Slugger awards to LaRouche, Strasburg and shortstop Ian Desmond, 27.

The team also unveiled its 2012 NL East title banner above the big screen in right-centerfield while military personnel and others converged on the field for festivities.

"This is a proud day for the organization," said general manager Mike Rizzo, 52. "Today starts anew ... and we'll start looking toward doing something special."

Mayor Vincent Gray delivered the lineup cards to home plate and Winthrop Roosevelt, the great-great grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, gave the "Play ball!" call.

Army Staff Sgt. Clint Romesha, a Medal of Honor recipient for his heroics in Afghanistan, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

The energy around the ballpark was electric with the color red dominating the landscape as people sported red baseball caps, Nats baseball shirts, T-shirts, lanyards and an assortment of team paraphernalia.

Along Half Street in Southeast, throngs of festive fans streamed toward Nationals Park Center Gate, walking under a large American flag unfurled between two extended fire engine ladders.