When the Washington Nationals take the field for their home opener against the Miami Marlins on April 7, the team and its loyal fans will be eager to erase memories of a disappointing 2015 season.
They’ll have plenty of reasons for optimism. With an experienced new manager in Dusty Baker, a strong bullpen led by ace Max Scherzer and the healthy return of the National League’s reigning MVP, Bryce Harper, Washington is again expected to reach the playoffs and possibly even earn their first World Series berth.
Nationals fans not only have reason to be excited about what’s happening on the field, but also the overall ballpark experience. The franchise has upped its concession game considerably for the 2016 season, doubling the size of the wildly popular Shake Shack counter and expanding Top Chef Mike Isabella’s gourmet presence.
One of the biggest changes to the lineup for 2016 is the Nats new beer partner, Budweiser. You will still find local crafts on tap, but now fans will have access to a Goose Island bar, Stella Artois and the full family of beers in the Anheuser-Busch portfolio. Look for new names for some familiar spots, and an opening day celebration featuring the world famous Clydesdales. The Nats have also planned some fun giveaways including free Nationals sunglasses for the first 25,000 fans at the home opener, and a Bryce Harper bobblehead doll and Chia Pet later in the season.
“The Nationals are always looking to enhance the fan experience at Nationals Park,” said Valerie Camillo, the Nationals’ Chief Marketing Officer.
The team opens its season on the road with Scherzer throwing against National League rival Atlanta on April 4. Three days later, the team welcomes its fans to the home debut for a matchup against the Marlins at 4:05 p.m. Stephen Strasburg, who finished last season in blazing form, will be on the mound. The Nats will battle the Marlins twice more over opening weekend on Saturday, April 9 at 4:05 p.m. and Sunday, April 10 at 1:35 p.m. Tickets are still available for both of those games.
The team’s powerful batting lineup returns mostly intact with Harper and slugger Anthony Rendon taking top billing, but also with Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa and new addition Daniel Murphy expected to produce lots of runs. Murphy, an infielder with a big bat, was acquired from the New York Mets in the off-season and has drawn rave reviews for his positive clubhouse influence and work ethic.
Veteran slugger and fan favorite Ryan Zimmerman, hobbled by a foot injury last season, looked strong in spring training in Florida and will be ready to go for the home opener. Outfielder Ben Revere, whom the Nationals acquired in an off-season trade by sending pitcher Drew Storen to the Toronto Blue Jays, should provide some at-the-plate consistency that the Nats lacked with oft-injured Denard Span.
But of course the biggest story at the plate is Harper. The 23-year-old phenom hit .330 last season while blasting 42 home runs, a tie for the most in the National League. In the process, he became just the seventh – and youngest – unanimous MVP in baseball history. Some analysts are wondering if Harper can capture the NL’s first Triple Crown since Joe Medwick accomplished the feat with the Cardinals in 1937.
In an interview with MLB.com earlier this year, Baker seemed practically giddy at the prospect of coaching Harper, the most heralded baseball player in a generation: “Hey man, this kid can play. He can really play. I love watching him play. Hopefully he can learn from me, and there might be something he can teach me.”
While their bats look hot, the Nats’ pitching rotation also appears strong, if not quite as powerful as in recent years. In his first season with the Nats last year, Scherzer set a team record for strikeouts and became the fifth player in major league history to notch two no-hitters in one season.
Meanwhile, Strasburg – among the most hyped players in league history when the Nats signed him in 2010 – seems to have put a slew of injuries behind him. Strasburg was one of the best pitchers in baseball over the second half last season, going 8-2, with a 1.76 earned run average. The team will also field some young but promising relievers in Felipe Rivero and Trevor Gott, and competent journeymen in Shawn Kelley, Oliver Perez and Yusmeiro Petit.
“We’ve got some live young arms and some good veteran experience,” Bob Boone, the Nats’ assistant GM, told the Washington Post in late March.
Of course, one of the biggest storylines of the Nats’ off-season was signing 66-year-old former player Baker to a two-year contract as the team’s new manager. An eclectic presence known for his rapport with players, Baker replaces Matt Williams, who rubbed many in the clubhouse the wrong way. Baker won a World Series as a player and has spent 20 years as a manager.
“He’s great with young players, he’s good with veterans,” retired outfielder Doug Glanville, the ESPN analyst who played for Baker with the Chicago Cubs, told the Associated Press last month. “Seeing him come back is great. I thought it was really important that he pass that torch in a way that he can end on the note he wants to end on.”
Nationals Park: 1500 S. Capitol St. Washington, DC
Photo: Courtesy of the Washington Nationals Baseball Club