ATLANTA — Postgame analysis of the Nats' 4-3 win over the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on Opening Day 2016:
How it happened: The Nationals waited six months this offseason to play another baseball game that mattered, and Dusty Baker waited two years to return to an MLB dugout, but their first game of 2016 may have provided enough action, and enough twist and turns to make up for all that time off. This one saw the Nationals lose two leads on homers against Max Scherzer, then saw their bullpen - much-maligned last season - collapse in the eighth. That was all before a game-tying sacrifice fly by Michael Taylor in the ninth and an RBI double in the 10th by offseason acquisition Daniel Murphy, the difference in a 4-3 victory at the Atlanta Braves on Opening Day of 2016.
What it means: The Nationals came away with the win, but the biggest takeaway for them may be the mess their bullpen created in the eighth inning. That's because their relief corps was their biggest weakness in 2015 and their biggest point of emphasis this offseason. Shawn Kelley was one of several veterans they signed in free agency and his first outing with the Nats was a forgettable one. He and Felipe Rivero combined for a disastrous eighth inning with Kelley walking in a run on a wild pitch. Rivero and Kelley are both considered on the short-list of relievers Baker can count on in big moments late in games. There is no reason to overanalyze one game out of 162, but the issues they faced in Game 1 may end up speaking to a larger problem.
Rivero's audition not a good one: Baker has stopped short of declaring roles for his bullpen outside of closer Jonathan Papelbon, saying several times he needs to see his relievers in game situations before sorting all of that out. He needs to see them tested. Well, Rivero got tested on Monday and his first go at it was quite rough. He pitched the eighth and began with a strikeout, but then walked Jeff Francoeur, allowed a single to Ender Inciarte and then hit Freddie Freeman on the hand to load the bases. This was with the game tied at 2-2 and it convinced Baker to pull the lefty for Kelley, who walked home a run on a pitch in the dirt. His first pitch of the at-bat against Adonis Garcia - the only batter he faced - bounced about five feet short of home.
Scherzer's homer issues persist: The biggest thing Scherzer wanted to work on this winter was cutting down on home runs, as he gave up 27 in 2015, the second-most of his career and nine more than he allowed in 2014 with the Tigers. On Monday he gave up two homers in his first 3 1/3 innings pitched. The first was to Freeman in the first inning. That was actually the first time the two stars had ever faced off in the regular season. Scherzer then served another one up to Garcia in the fourth inning.
Harper homers in first at-bat: Well, that didn't take long. Harper worked an eight-pitch at-bat in his first plate appearance of 2016 before launching a high-flying bomb to right field off Braves starter Julio Teheran. It came on an 84 mile per hour slider and was just the latest in what has become a trend for Harper. That was his fourth Opening Day homer, which is already halfway to the all-time mark held by Frank Robinson, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Adam Dunn. He is the first Nationals player to homer on consecutive Opening Days and the third in franchise history behind Vladimir Guerrero and Gary Carter. It was Harper's 98th career home run, which inches him closer to some even more exclusive company. Harper got to No. 98 at 23 years and 171 years old. Albert Pujols hit No. 100 at 23.185, Hank Aaron got there at 23.191 and Griffey, Jr. reached the century mark at 23.206. Those three round out the 10-fastest players ever to hit their 100th career homer.
Murphy makes instant impact: Murphy signed with the Nationals this winter after hitting seven homers in 14 games during a breakout postseason, and many wondered if that was just the beginning of a late-career power surge. Murphy had, after all, posted a career-high of 14 homers during the regular season, which gave him a total of 21 in 144 combined games. It looks like Murphy may have carried that over, as he homered in his second at-bat on Opening Day. He also walked in his first and third at-bats, and drove in the go-ahead run in the 10th.
Nats benefit from Utley Rule: The Nationals came out on the positive end of a new MLB rule in the seventh inning as a takeout slide by Nick Markakis at second base earned them a double play. Hector Olivera hit a grounder to Anthony Rendon, who fired the ball to second. Murphy made the turn, but was late on the throw. The umps, however, thought Markakis interfered and awarded the Nats an extra out.
Revere might be injured: Ben Revere was replaced by Michael Taylor in center field in the bottom of the fourth inning with what could be an injury. We know Baker wants to find ways to get Taylor playing time, possibly as a defensive replacement, but not this early in a game. It would not be surprising if Baker revealed an injury to his leadoff hitter after the game. If that is the case, it may remind fans of Opening Day 2014 when Wilson Ramos left their game against the Mets with a broken bone in his wrist and Harper took a nasty collision at second base. Just because you break camp healthy doesn't mean it will stay that way.
Up next: The Nationals have a day off before they finish their two-game series at the Atlanta Braves. Stephen Strasburg gets the start opposite Braves right-hander Bud Norris.