Braves 2, Nationals 0
By Howard Fendrich
WASHINGTON — Coming off major knee surgery, and coming up on his 39th birthday, Chipper Jones came back to baseball in a big way.
At the plate in a real game for the first time since August, the Atlanta Braves third baseman doubled for the first hit by anyone in the 2011 season. He legged it out, even, beating a throw from new Washington Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth.
“I was busting it out of the box,” Jones said. “Didn’t necessarily want to slide, but I had to.”
He went on to score the season’s first run, Jason Heyward added a solo shot, and Derek Lowe allowed three singles in 5 2-3 innings on a chilly, damp opening day, helping the Braves beat the Nationals 2-0 Thursday to make Fredi Gonzalez a winner in his debut as Atlanta’s manager.
The Braves played their first regular-season game since Bobby Cox retired at the end of 2010 after two decades — and 15 playoff appearances — as their skipper.
Welcome back, Chipper. Nice way to start, Fredi.
“It doesn’t feel any different. A win’s a win,” said Gonzalez, who previously managed the Florida Marlins. “I’m wearing this uniform and, hopefully, I’m wearing it for a long time and get a lot of wins.”
As he spoke, a 2002 bottle of Dom Perignon champagne rested in a box on the desk in the visiting manager’s office — a bubbly gift from Atlanta’s trainers.
“I didn’t know they made that much money,” Gonzalez said with a chuckle.
It was easy to smile, thanks to the way his club played. And one season after the Year of the Pitcher — a pair of perfect games 20 days apart, four other no-hitters — things got started with a shutout.
With his sinker in fine, darting form, Lowe (1-0) struck out six and walked two.
“Probably the best I’ve seen him pitch in a long time,” said Werth, the $126 million man who went 1 for 4 and made two diving catches in his first home game at Nationals Park. “His ball was sharp.”
Ryan Zimmerman’s take on Lowe: “He was him. You know what you’re going to get from him, and we got it.”
The 37-year-old Lowe struck out the side in the third, including Zimmerman looking to end the inning. Zimmerman argued some with umpire Tim Welke while walking away; he tossed his bat, helmet and batting gloves on the ground, then yanked out his gum and chucked that, too.
Lowe needed plenty of pitches, 105, and left after walking Zimmerman in the sixth. Adam LaRoche followed by singling off lefty Eric O’Flaherty, who got out of it by getting Michael Morse to ground out.
“There was a lot of trying to figure each other out. I couldn’t go after them the same exact way I did last time, because with technology you can figure each other out,” Lowe said. “It was a cat-and-mouse game. That’s probably why I threw so many pitches in a short amount of time.”
Four relievers got the last 10 outs. Craig Kimbrel worked a 1-2-3 ninth for the save, his second in the majors.
Lowe’s only spot of trouble, really, came in the first, when Werth and Zimmerman singled, putting runners at the corners with one out. But LaRoche, a free agent brought in to take over for the departed Adam Dunn at first base, popped out to second, and Morse, who earned the left-field job vacated by the traded Josh Willingham, grounded out.
“Lowe really locked down,” Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said.
With two outs in the first, 1999 NL MVP Jones doubled to right on a 3-2 pitch in his first at-bat in a regular-season game since tearing up his left knee Aug. 10. He also singled in the ninth. McCann drove home Jones by grounding a single up the middle off Livan Hernandez (0-1) in the first, and Heyward led off the second with a homer.
Heyward also homered in Game 1 a year ago, in his first major league at-bat. According to STATS and the SABR Home Run Log, he’s only the second player in major league history to homer in his first at-bat of his team’s opening day game as a rookie and again the following year. The other was Kazuo Matsui with the New York Mets in 2004 and 2005.
The Nationals were without their most prized young player, pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who flew back to Florida on Thursday to continue rehabilitation from reconstructive elbow surgery that is expected to sideline him for most of 2011.
In front of a non-sellout crowd of 39,055, neither starting pitcher was bothered one bit by the cold — it was 41 degrees when Hernandez threw a called strike to Martin Prado for the first pitch at 1:11 p.m. — or by the misty drizzle that came and went.
“I couldn’t really feel my toes,” Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard said.
After giving up Heyward’s homer on a hanging slider, Hernandez retired 16 of 17 batters the rest of the way, including 15 in a row. Making his ninth opening day start, Hernandez allowed four hits in 6 2-3 innings.
“Both clubs pitched good,” Riggleman said, “but they were a little better than us today.”
NOTES: Gonzalez got a good-luck phone call from Cox on Thursday morning. His debut as a major league manager also came against the Nationals, a 9-2 Marlins victory at RFK Stadium in 2007. … After Friday’s day off, the series resumes Saturday, with Atlanta RHP Tommy Hanson facing Washington LHP John Lannan.
The Associated Press