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LaHair on starting on Opening Day at first base

The sun should be shining, and the air cool but pleasant. The grass will be green, the hot dogs hot and the beer cold. Wrigley Field is still Wrigley Field, and for plenty of the fans who come out on Thursday afternoon to the venerable old ballpark, that's enough.

For the vast majority, though, it's not anywhere near enough. The best part about a new season is not the ballpark, but the chance to see the club's long-term plan start to take effect. The Cubs welcome the rising Nationals to Wrigley for an interdivisional opener that features two intriguingly contrasting clubs.

In fact, if Cubs fans really want to get an idea of the plan, they could do worse than looking across the diamond. Washington's ownership and front office have hewn to the long view in recent years, allowing for steady building toward a future that may or may not be here in 2012 but will arrive soon. The Nats have built through the Draft, through trades and through free agency, taking advantage of a large market and a hungry fan base to construct an organization that hopes to win for years to come.

That's the sort of idea that has been put in place at the corner of Clark and Addison. But while the long view is nice, there's a season to be played now. Fans are going to want to see wins, starting Thursday when Ryan Dempster faces Washington's Stephen Strasburg. And new president of baseball operations Theo Epstein wants that, too.

"From a culture standpoint, we want to see a winning attitude around here," Epstein said. "We want to see attention to detail. We want to see hard work, we want to see preparation, we want to see players who care about the outcome of games, we want to see players who care and support each other. We want to see players who take pride in the uniform."

That's the sort of culture that the Nationals believe they've already installed. It's been a lengthy process for Washington, one that may not reach completion this year. The Nats are closer than they've ever been, though. And having a full year of Strasburg is a great start to what is expected to be a run at playoff contention.

The 23-year-old heads a rotation that ranks with some of the best in the game. New additions Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson join Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann to form a formidable foursome. Ross Detwiler is holding down Chien-Ming Wang's place until Wang returns from injury.

"Strasburg is leading the pack," Gonzalez said. "He is the right man for the job, right there. ... I think Stras is definitely the man to set this rotation in the right direction. From there on, we are going to help him and follow him."

The question for Washington is where the runs will come from. An offense that ranked 12th in the National League in runs scored doesn't appear to be significantly boosted for 2012, meaning that Strasburg and Co. will have to carry the flag if the Nats are to make it to October. Either that or phenom Bryce Harper will need to arrive soon and make an impact.

Harper starts the season at Triple-A Syracuse, meaning that Ryan Zimmerman is still the face of the Nationals' everyday club. Not a bad face, with Zimmerman an all-around star who recently agreed to a new long-term deal.

For the home team, some new faces have been brought in to jump-start a club that wasn't terrible but wasn't great at plating runs in '11. It'll have its work cut out for it against Strasburg, of course, but David DeJesus, Ian Stewart and youngster Bryan LaHair hope to offer spark for the Cubs. LaHair technically was a Cub in 2011, but got all of 59 at-bats following two superb years at Triple-A Iowa.

"If we get timely hitting and our two corner guys live up to their capabilities, no less or no more, you have a chance to score runs," said new Cubs manager Dale Sveum. "The timely hitting is the biggest thing."

Even the managers provide a study in contrasts. Sveum has managed all of 12 Major League games, as the interim skipper for the Brewers in 2008. He actually made his debut at Wrigley Field that year. Davey Johnson, helming the Nats, is entering his 17th year as a Major League manager and has five division titles to his credit.

And then there are the starters, a graybeard/kid pairing in the other direction. Dempster begins his 15th season in the bigs, a career that's seen him make 294 starts and also save 87 games. Strasburg begins what he hopes will be his first full season, making his first Opening Day start.

For six months, they'll plow toward their respective goals, keeping an eye on the present and an eye on the long term. On Thursday, they simply get to play a game that counts, at one of the game's great ballparks. Comments