Atlanta Braves' Chipper Jones hits a three-run home run against the Detroit Tigers during a spring training game in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
WASHINGTON — Even Washington Nationals opening day starter Livan Hernandez wishes Stephen Strasburg could take that assignment today.
Yes, Hernandez is proud to be pitching against Derek Lowe and the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of 2011. He also knows that Strasburg probably would be the guy getting that honor if not for September’s reconstructive elbow surgery.
“He’s the No. 1 guy on the team, no doubt,” Hernandez said at Nationals Park, where rain interrupted the home team’s workout Wednesday and is forecast for Thursday. “When we’ve got him on the team, the team is much, much better. ... I want to see the young guys happy and doing something I’ve done before. He should be the guy out there.”
In some ways, today’s season opener in the nation’s capital is as noteworthy for who won’t be there as who will be. Strasburg will miss the game, flying back to Florida to resume his rehabilitation work. The Braves’ manager will be Fredi Gonzalez, not Bobby Cox, who retired after last season.
“He’s somebody that’ll be missed,” said new Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche, who played for Cox in Atlanta. “Knowing Bobby, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was sitting over there in the dugout. We’ll wait and see what happens.”
Seeking to explain the challenge he faces, Gonzalez said: “It’s like following Bear Bryant. Or Jimmy Johnson following Don Shula. Those kinds of things.”
Cox took Atlanta to the playoffs 15 times in his two decades there.
Hernandez recalled fondly the mind games that went on when he’d pitch against those Braves teams.
“All the time I’m thinking, ‘Bobby, he knows me very good. He’s going to tell his players what I do.’ That makes me think,” Hernandez said. “He’s the kind of guy who knows what you do, what you throw, what kind of pitches you’re going to throw in what counts. So smart. Sometimes, I would look into the dugout, and he’s looking at me, and I’d think, ‘What is he thinking?”’
The 47-year-old Gonzalez says he didn’t see any reason to make many changes, given all of the success the Braves enjoyed under his 69-year-old predecessor.
As for the players? Well, outfielder Jason Heyward pointed to one obvious difference between the two managers.
“I feel like Fredi is just younger, obviously, than Bobby,” Heyward said. “It’s not for me to compare, but that’s what we have to work with as far as comparisons. ... He’s younger, has a little more pep in his step, pays a little more attention to detail, to things he wants to take care of right away. So he’s a little more hands-on.”
There are, of course, key players who’ll garner a lot of attention today, whatever they do.
There’s Jayson Werth, the right fielder whose $126 million, seven-year contract with the Nationals that caught all of baseball’s attention this offseason. He’s part of an all-new starting outfield in Washington, with Rick Ankiel in center, and Michael Morse in left.
“I’m starting a new chapter in my life. I plan on being here a long time and making the most of it,” said Werth, who went from the perennial NL East champion Philadelphia Phillies to the perennial last-place Nationals. “Obviously, there’s a responsibility, taking on the contract that I’ve taken on and coming here to Washington. I plan on being a leader on this team.”
The Braves, meanwhile, welcome back Chipper Jones, who’s coming off major knee surgery that kept him out of last year’s playoffs.
Today, Jones will be at third base and batting in his customary No. 3 slot.
“He’s had a good spring, a real good spring,” Gonzalez said. “There’s a twinkle in his eye. There’s something there.”
Strasburg is stuck thinking ahead to a year from now — when he wants to start Washington’s first game of 2012.
The right-hander knows the work he’s “putting in right now is going to let me be there next opening day — hopefully pitching it, too.”
Strasburg is throwing on flat ground from up to 105 feet and aims to throw off a mound in about a month. He’s expected to miss most or all of 2011.
He says the Nationals are watching him “like hawks” to make sure he doesn’t overdo his rehab work.
“I’m kind of not placing expectations on myself. I can’t control how fast my body heals. Everything’s pointing to me being back at the end of the year, so that’s what I’m hoping for,” Strasburg said. “But at the same time, I’m just going to let it heal naturally. I’m not going to try and push the envelope.”