When the Nationals open the 2011 season Thursday against the Braves, they'll have a markedly different look than they did in their final games of 2010. Whether it leads to any different results on the field remains to be seen.
The Nationals have been whipped on Opening Day the last two years, losing 12-6 to the Marlins in 2009 and being embarrassed 11-1 by the Phillies last year, in a game played before tens of thousands of Phillies fans who snapped up tickets at Nationals Park.
The last time Washington won on Opening Day was in 2008, when the Braves were also in town. That year, Ryan Zimmerman hit a walk-off home run in the first game at Nationals Park. The Nationals have fared well against Atlanta in recent years, going 10-8 against the Braves last year.
They expect to improve on their 69-93 record this season primarily by improving on defense; the Nationals made 123 errors last year after leading the National League in errors in 2008 and 2009. Rookie Danny Espinosa is expected to bring some athleticism at second base, and the Nationals are counting on a better second season from shortstop Ian Desmond, who made 34 errors last year. And Adam Dunn, who was limited defensively at first base, is gone, having been replaced by Adam LaRoche.
It's uncertain, though, if the Nationals' outfield will improve defensively. Jayson Werth is a solid defender in right field, but the Nationals will have a new look in both center field and left field. They handed the center field job to Rick Ankiel, who has never played a full season at the position, and will start Michael Morse in left. Morse hit nine homers in spring training and blasted 15 in just 293 plate appearances last year, but his fielding needs work, and the Nationals picked him over the defensively superior Roger Bernadina.
Washington's pitching staff is still suspect, especially without Stephen Strasburg. But the Nationals hope an athletic infield will be enough to make the difference. They'll get their first look Thursday.
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