Games might get shorter but the season could be a long one

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Around the crowded concourse of Nationals Park, vestiges of Washington’s past could be seen in the number of fans wearing jerseys of players who no longer play for the franchise. Soto. Zimmerman. Scherzer. They were all there. On the backs of fans, anyway. 

Those rocking C.J. Abrams or Keibert Ruiz jerseys — you know, current Nationals — were few and far between.

“You got to support somebody on the team,” said Zach Dudley, who was sporting a No. 28 Lane Thomas cherry blossom jersey that he bought just two weeks ago. 

“I’m not going to lie, C.J. Abrams was the only name I recognized,” Jordan Cox said, explaining her purchase of Abrams’ No. 5. 

Washington is in the early stages of a years-long rebuild, which means the 35,756 who turned out for opening day, along with the thousands who tuned in over the airwaves, have plenty of time ahead to get to know this next generation of Nationals. And if Thursday’s 7-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves is any indication, it will be a while before the Nationals are competitive enough again for jerseys to fly off the shelves. 

The Nationals’ first game of the 2023 season Thursday looked a lot like the club that finished 2022. There was starter Patrick Corbin, who will be paid $24 million this season, again taking an early exit, yanked in the 4th inning after 85 pitches. There was the familiar shortage of bats strong enough to bring runners home — the Nationals stranded 10 of 11 runners in scoring position.  And there was an inexperienced infield that coughed up three costly errors — all three by Abrams. 

Though MLB implemented new rules like a pitch clock to make the games faster, the Nationals’ opening-day loss lasted three hours and seven minutes — four minutes longer than the average nine-inning game in 2022. 

A game can’t go quickly if a team can’t get outs. 

“These are going to be some of the growing pains we have,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “They’re teaching moments. We’re going to teach them and we’re going to get them to understand.”

Martinez and the Nationals will be judged on whether they can actually grow amid the pain. After losing 107 games last season, this year figures to be about the development of Washington’s core — and whether the group can take encouraging steps despite the prospects of a pile of losses. 

Abrams’ missteps are a case in point.  One of the key pieces in the Juan Soto trade last summer, the 22-year-old has plenty of room to grow as a shortstop. A failure to turn a double play in the second kept Atlanta’s inning alive and soon led to a 3-0 deficit instead of a 1-0. Then in the top of the ninth, Abrams overthrew a runner at third that caused the Braves to tack on another run in a 7-2 contest. 

“Got to stay confident and move on,” Abrams said.

Despite it all, opening day means excitement and optimism. This year was no exception.

Martinez boasted pregame about the strides the team made in defense and pitching during spring training. General manager Mike Rizzo said fans could expect to see an “extremely athletic” baseball team that would make plays with their “hair on fire.” The game was also meaningful for those like Leyton Albertson, an 18-year-old fan who blew off school to make the four-and-a-half hour drive from West Virginia to the ballpark. 

Albertson, wearing a jersey of Saturday’s starter, Josiah Gray, has embraced Washington’s rebuild. He acknowledged that following the team can be “a little tough” in the dog days of summer when losses start to stack, but he’s come to terms with the team’s decision to essentially start over. 

“It’s the price you pay for a championship, right?” Albertson said of the Nationals’ rebuild. “And I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’m hoping the new group of guys … will be around for the next run.” 

There’s an aspect of this Nationals’ rebuild, however, that makes the team’s trajectory much harder to predict. 

A year ago, the Nationals announced that the Lerner family was exploring a sale of the team. But a year later, that possible sale not only seems no closer to completion — but Sports Business Journal reported that the process has been “officially paused” for 2023 as the Nationals, the Orioles and MLB try to sort out the future of Washington’s complicated television rights.

Rizzo said the uncertainty of the Nationals’ ownership does not affect this season, though admitted it impacts the three-year and five-year plan of Washington’s rebuild.

“It’s something that we’re going to have to attack on the fly and see almost on a monthly or bimonthly basis where we’re at,” Rizzo said, later adding, “It’s a little bit more challenging. That said, we’re way further along than the last rebuild. 

“The level of prospects that we have at this time opposed to our first rebuild, it’s like night and day. It’s the best group we’ve ever had down there. That will kind of counteract the uncertainty.” 

Before the game, the Nationals inducted the late Ted Lerner into the Ring of Fame. Then over the next three hours, his team went out and did what many expect will happen plenty more times this season: They lost. 

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