MLB games could be shorter this season. But the Nationals have a long year ahead of them.

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

Those rockin’ jerseys by CJ Abrams or Keibert Ruiz – you know, current Nationals – were few and far between.

“You have to support someone on the team,” said Zach Dudley, wearing a No. 28 Lane Thomas Cherry Blossom jersey he bought just two weeks ago.

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

Washington is in the early stages of a year-long rebuild, meaning the 35,756 who showed up on opening day, along with the thousands who tuned in over the airwaves, have plenty of time to learn about 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 to have jerseys flying off the shelves.

The first game of the Nationals of the 2023 season on Thursday looked very similar to the club that finished 2022. There was starter Patrick Corbin, who will be paid $24 million this season, who busted again early and was pulled after 85 pitches in the 4th inning. There was the well-known lack of at-bats strong enough to bring runners home — the Nationals stranded 10 of 11 runners in goal position. And there was an inexperienced infield that spat out three costly mistakes – all three by Abrams.

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

A game can’t go fast if a team doesn’t get out.

“These are going to be some of the growing pains that we have,” said Nationals manager Dave Martinez. “You teach moments. We will teach them and make them understand.”

Martinez and the Nationals will be judged on whether they can actually grow through the pain. After losing 107 games last season, this year is about the development of Washington’s core – and whether the group can make encouraging moves despite the prospect of a pile of losses.

Abrams’ missteps are a case in point. The 22-year-old was one of the key figures in the Juan Soto trade last summer and has plenty of room to grow as a shortstop. A failure to turn a double in the second game kept Atlanta’s inning alive and soon resulted in a 3-0 deficit instead of a 1-0. Then, at the top of ninth, Abrams toppled a third-place runner, resulting in it led the Braves to schedule another run in a 7-2 contest.

“I have to stay confident and keep going,” Abrams said.

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

Martinez boasted before the game about the team’s defense and pitching improvements during spring training. General Manager Mike Rizzo said fans can expect to see an “extremely athletic” baseball team playing with “flaming hair.” The game also had meaning for the likes of Leyton Albertson, an 18-year-old fan who dropped out of school to make the four-and-a-half hour drive from West Virginia to the ballpark.

Albertson, wearing a jersey worn by Saturday’s starter Josiah Gray, has welcomed Washington’s rebuild. He conceded that it can be “a little difficult” to follow the team in the dog days of summer when losses pile up, but he has come to terms with the team’s decision to essentially start over.

“That’s the price you pay for a championship, right?” Albertson said of rebuilding the Nationals. “And I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I hope the new group of guys… will be there for the next run.”

However, there is one aspect of these Nationals’ remodeling that makes the team’s trajectory much more difficult to predict.

A year ago, the Nationals announced that the Lerner family was considering selling the team. But a year later, not only does that potential sale appear no closer to completion — Sports Business Journal reported that the process has been “officially put on hold” for 2023 as the Nationals, the Orioles and MLB try to shape the future of Washington’s complicated television to regulate rights.

Rizzo said the uncertainty about Nationals ownership will not affect this season, but admitted it is affecting Washington’s three- and five-year recovery plan.

“It’s something that we have to attack on the fly and see where we’re at almost monthly or bi-monthly,” Rizzo said, later adding, “It’s a little bit more challenging. That means we’re much further along than we were during the last conversion.

“The level of prospects we have at this point versus our first conversion is like night and day. This is the best group we’ve ever had down there. That will counteract the uncertainty somewhat.”

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

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