published Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Chipper, Heyward, Lowe help Braves beat Nats 2-0

WASHINGTON — Welcome back, Chipper. Nice way to start, Fredi.

Returning from major knee surgery, Chipper Jones doubled before scoring the 2011 season’s first run on a chilly, damp opening day, and Derek Lowe allowed three singles in 5 2-3 innings, helping the Braves beat the Washington Nationals 2-0 Thursday to make Fredi Gonzalez a winner in his debut as Atlanta’s manager.

The Braves played their first regular-season game since Bobby Cox retired at the end of 2010 after two decades — and 15 playoff appearances — as their skipper.

With his sinker in fine, darting form, Lowe (1-0) struck out six and walked two. Brian McCann drove in 1999 NL MVP Jones by grounding a single up the middle off Livan Hernandez (0-1) in the first, and Jason Heyward led off the second with a homer.

The Braves played their first regular-season game since Bobby Cox retired at the end of 2010 after two decades — and 15 playoff appearances — as their skipper. With his sinker in fine, darting form, Lowe (1-0) struck out six and walked two.

Brian McCann drove in Jones with a single off Livan Hernandez (0-1) in the first, and Jason Heyward led off the second with a homer.

Heyward also homered in Game 1 a year ago, in his first major league at-bat. According to STATS and the SABR Home Run Log, he’s only the second player in major league history to homer in his first at-bat of his team’s opening day game as a rookie and again the following year. The other was Kazuo Matsui with the New York Mets in 2004 and 2005.

The Nationals were without their most prized young player, pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who flew back to Florida on Thursday to continue rehabilitation from reconstructive elbow surgery that is expected to sideline him for most, if not all, of this season. But Washington did see free-agent signing Jayson Werth in action.

In his first regular-season at-bat for the Nationals — at second in the lineup, an unusual spot for a guy with a $126 million contract and some power — Werth singled to right. And then, doing exactly what general manager Mike Rizzo keeps saying he expects, Werth went from first to third on a single by Ryan Zimmerman.

Lowe made sure the Nationals failed to convert that two-on, one-out opportunity, though. Adam LaRoche, a free agent brought in to take over for the departed Adam Dunn at first base, popped out to second, and Michael Morse, who earned the left-field job vacated by the traded Josh Willingham, grounded out.

Four relievers combined to get the last 10 outs. Craig Kimbrel worked a 1-2-3 ninth for the save, his second in the majors.

In front of a non-sellout crowd of 39,055 at Nationals Park, neither of Thursday’s starting pitchers was bothered one bit by the cold — it was 41 degrees when Hernandez threw a called strike to Martin Prado for the first pitch at 1:11 p.m. — or by the misty drizzle that came and went.

The 37-year-old Lowe — more than 1 1/2 years older than Hernandez — struck out the side in the third, including Zimmerman looking to end the inning. Zimmerman argued some with umpire Tim Welke while walking away; he tossed his bat, helmet and batting gloves on the ground, then yanked out his gum and chucked that down, too.

Lowe needed plenty of pitches, 105, and left after walking Zimmerman in the sixth. LaRoche followed by singling off lefty Eric O’Flaherty, who got out of it by getting Morse to ground out.

With two outs in the first, Jones doubled to right on a 3-2 pitch in his first at-bat in a regular-season game since tearing up his left knee Aug. 10. He also singled in the ninth.

After giving up Heyward’s solo shot, Hernandez settled into a groove, retiring 16 of the 17 batters he faced the rest of the way, including 15 in a row. He got some help from Werth, who made a sliding catch of Alex Gonzalez’s sinking liner in the fifth.

NOTES: Hernandez allowed four hits and two runs in 6 2-3 innings. ... Fredi Gonzalez got a good-luck phone call from Cox about five hours before Thursday’s game. His debut as a major league manager also came against the Nationals, a 9-2 victory for his Florida Marlins at Washington’s RFK Stadium on April 2, 2007. ... After Friday’s day off, the series resumes Saturday, with Atlanta RHP Tommy Hanson facing Washington LHP John Lannan. On Sunday, the Braves are scheduled to start RHP Tim Hudson against RHP Jordan Zimmermann. ... Before Thursday’s game, the Nationals selected the contracts of INF Alex Cora, RHP Chad Gaudin, OF Laynce Nix and pinch-hitter Matt Stairs. They also released RHP Joe Bisenius, RHP Tim Wood and OF Jonathan Van Every.

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