WASHINGTON -- About 20 minutes before the Opening Day game started between the Nationals and Braves at Nationals Park on Thursday afternoon, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo told the crowd it would see a more energetic team in 2011.
Rizzo has every reason to feel this way. This offseason, Rizzo improved the team by acquiring free-agent outfielder Jayson Werth and first baseman Adam LaRoche.
Even Braves right-hander Derek Lowe has taken notice of the progress the Nationals made in the offseason.
"I like what they've done with their team," Lowe said. "It's a tough lineup. There's no doubt they're going to be a lot better this year."
The truth is, at least on Thursday, the Nats got off to a sluggish start in the batter's box as they were blanked by Lowe and the Braves, 2-0.
Lowe dominated Washington, pitching 5 2/3 scoreless innings and striking out six. Washington's only real chance to score off Lowe occurred in the first inning.
The Nats had runners on first and third with one out, but LaRoche popped out to second baseman Dan Uggla, then Michael Morse grounded out to third baseman Chipper Jones to end the inning.
After the first, Washington didn't get a runner into scoring position against Lowe, who left with a runner on first and two outs in the sixth.
"D-Lowe had good stuff today," Werth said. "That is probably the best I've seen him pitch in a long time. We had some opportunities. Unfortunately, we didn't get it done. It's just one game. He was sinking the ball. He got a lot of ground balls. The ball was sharp."
After the game, Lowe sounded as if he was lucky to shut down Washington's offense. It was a cold and damp day, and Lowe believes he would have allowed two home runs on a normal day.
"The one that LaRoche hit [to left field in the fourth inning], I felt for sure was a home run," Lowe said. "[Rick] Ankiel [hitting the ball to right in the second inning], I felt the same way. Those were two balls probably later in the year would have been home runs."
Left-hander Eric O'Flaherty relieved Lowe in the sixth and allowed a single to LaRoche to put runners on first and second, but O'Flaherty was able to get out of the inning when Morse grounded out.
The Nats' final opportunity to score came in the seventh. With Danny Espinosa on second and O'Flaherty on the mound, manager Jim Riggleman decided to have Jerry Hairston pinch-hit for reliever Tyler Clippard. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez decided to bring in right-hander Peter Moylan to face Hairston. Riggleman countered and had Laynce Nix pinch-hit, but Nix struck out to end the inning.
The big question was why didn't Riggleman allow his best pinch-hitter, Matt Stairs, to come to the plate. Riggleman felt Moylan would have pitched around Stairs.
"That was a tough call," Riggleman said. "I felt if I put Stairs up there, they wouldn't let him hit. I thought they would dance around him. And then we would have Moylan, who is tough on [right-handed hitters], throwing against [Ian Desmond]. I thought we would have a better chance by putting Nix up there. I had a lot of confidence that Laynce would get him. Again, the Braves made good pitches."
Nationals right-hander Livan Hernandez delivered a quality start, but the first two innings came back to haunt him. The outing marked his ninth Opening Day start, which ties him with nine others for the 13th most Opening Day starts since 1919.
In the first, Hernandez retired the first two hitters, but he had some trouble getting the final out. Jones doubled to right and scored on Brian McCann's single to center to make it a 1-0.
In the next inning, Jason Heyward led off and ripped a 2-1 pitch over the right-field wall to make it a two-run game. Hernandez said he was trying to throw a slider on the inside part of the plate to force Heyward to hit a ground ball or a popup, but the ball stayed in the middle of the plate.
Besides Hernandez's quality performance, the Nationals played great defense. Werth made two diving catches and LaRoche made a nice diving play to his right to throw out McCann. A year ago, Washington was one of the worst defensive teams. The defense has been the No. 1 reason the club finished in fifth place the last three years.
"We were working hard in Spring Training, trying to get the defense to get better from last year," Hernandez said. "We are working hard. We are doing what we are supposed to do. Everyone is playing hard to get better."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.