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Bryce Harper starts Nationals off with a bang (or two)

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Sports,MLB,Nationals,Brian McNally

Outfielder homers twice to back sharp Stephen Strasburg

Everything seemed scripted. The ace made hitters look helpless, outs following each other with numbing regularity. The young phenom again shined on the big stage in front of a swooning sellout crowd.

This is exactly what the Nationals envisioned when they drafted pitcher Stephen Strasburg with the No. 1 overall pick in 2009 and outfielder Bryce Harper with the same choice one year later. Strasburg tossed seven shutout innings against the Miami Marlins at Nationals Park on Monday afternoon. Harper, meanwhile, blasted two solo home runs to right field to provide all the necessary runs in a 2-0 victory on a memorable Opening Day.

"You couldn't draw it up any better. No question," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "To have the two youngsters go out and do what they did, I just sit back and watch it. Let Harper and Strasburg go to work. They didn't need us. That's fine."

Indeed, the only other offense against Miami pitching besides Harper's electrifying homers was a single by Denard Span, a walk and an infield hit for Ian Desmond and a walk and a single for Wilson Ramos. But Strasburg didn't need anymore. He gave up a leadoff single to Juan Pierre and retired the next 19 batters.

It was a dominating performance but in a different way than usual. In the past, Strasburg has pushed his strikeout totals into double digits as he blew fastballs past hitters or froze them with his devastating curveball. This time efficiency was the buzzword. Strasburg recorded 10 ground-outs and struck out just three batters. He gave up three hits and didn't walk any batters.

"Early on in his career, you look up and it's the sixth inning and he's close to 100 pitches," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "If [Strasburg] wants to be the workhorse that he is, he's gonna have to pitch more games like this where he's going later into the game with a lower pitch count."

"I almost got a lawn chair out there," joked center fielder Denard Span, who had just two fly balls hit to him all afternoon.

As for Harper, he ripped two lasers into the lower deck of the right-field stands off Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco. The first one came on the second pitch he saw of the season in the first inning. The next one came leading off the fourth. Faint chants of "M-V-P" rose from the over-capacity crowd, and Harper burst from the dugout for a curtain call when the cheers wouldn't stop. LaRoche, standing in the on-deck circle, just looked at manager Davey Johnson and bench coach Randy Knorr and burst into laughter. There wasn't anything to say. Harper became the youngest player ever to homer twice on Opening Day.

"You shake your head in amazement. You don't see that too often from anybody, period," Span said. "But just to see [Harper] as a 20-year-old -- it seems like he's just writing a book right now, everything that he's doing. And then he does it so calm, too. It seems like this is what he's been doing his whole life."

Tyler Clippard took over for Strasburg after just 80 pitches following the seventh inning. Johnson said he isn't yet ready to push his young ace this early in the season. After a little extra adrenaline led to a walk, Clippard retired the Marlins in the eighth. Closer Rafael Soriano did the same in the ninth, including a game-ending strikeout of slugger Giancarlo Stanton.

"Being able to share that with my family and this organization, it was a pretty special moment," said Harper, whose parents attended the game. "If I was 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, it wouldn't have mattered to me."

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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