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ATL@WSH: Heyward belts a solo home run in the second

WASHINGTON -- While unemployed and living with his family in their suburban Atlanta home late last season, Fredi Gonzalez found himself as one of the many Braves fans who were thrilled to see Derek Lowe experience a tremendous turnaround during a perfect run through September.

Six months later, Gonzalez finds himself fortunate to be the manager of a Braves club that is benefiting from the confidence Lowe gained late last year and the tremendous talents of Jason Heyward, who has proven he knows how to get a season started in impressive fashion.

Heyward drilled another Opening Day homer and Lowe proved strong into the sixth inning, helping the Braves open Gonzalez's reign as their manager with a 2-0 season-opening win over the Nationals at Nationals Park on Thursday afternoon.

"He's 1-0, he's undefeated as an Atlanta Braves manager," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "So it was good to get that first one out of the way, for us and the fans of Atlanta."

For the first time since 1990, the Braves opened a season with somebody other than Bobby Cox serving as their manager. But as Cox watched from his Atlanta home Thursday afternoon, he had reason to reminisce about the dominant Lowe he sent to the mound late last season and the Opening Day homer that Heyward drilled with his first career swing last year.

Heyward's second-inning leadoff homer off Nationals starter Livan Hernandez proved to be historical. Like last year against Cubs right-hander Carlos Zambrano, the Braves 21-year-old All-Star outfielder managed to homer in his first at-bat on Opening Day.

The only other Major Leaguer to homer in his first at-bat of both his first two seasons on Opening Day was Kaz Matsui, who did so for the Mets in 2004 and '05.

"I can see J-Hey doing it, but Kaz Matsui?" said a smirking Jones after producing a two-hit performance while playing his first game since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on Aug. 10.

Heyward's latest Opening Day homer simply increased the advantage the Braves gained in the first, when Jones flared a ball toward the right-field corner and hustled his way to second base with a two-out double. That hustle put him in position to score when Brian McCann followed with a chopper up the middle.

"I was busting it out of the box and didn't necessarily want to slide, but I had to," Jones said. "I got the hit and right after that we had the 1-0 lead and then J-Hey tomahawked one. D-Lowe and the bullpen were outstanding."

Lowe limited the Nationals to three hits and recorded six strikeouts over 5 2/3 scoreless innings. This simply extended the dominant run he enjoyed while winning each of his five September starts last year. Going back to that span, the 37-year-old sinkerballer is 6-0 with a 0.99 ERA in his past six regular-season starts.

"This is the calmest I've been on any Opening Day," Lowe said. "I didn't have to worry about mechanics, which is always my downfall. I felt very confident in the spring I had and the way I ended last year. Hopefully I can have more months like September this year."

Lowe's turnaround began when he met with pitching coach Roger McDowell before a Sept. 13 start against the Nats. He had gone 1-5 with a 5.44 ERA in his previous nine starts against Washington.

Lowe responded with 12 strikeouts over eight scoreless innings that night and has now worked 18 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings against the Nationals.

"D-Lowe had good stuff today," Washington right fielder Jayson Werth said. "That is probably the best I've seen him pitch in a long time. We had some opportunities. Unfortunately, we didn't get it done."

Since going 0-3 with an 8.44 ERA in three Opening Day starts for the Dodgers, Lowe has found his season openers with the Braves to be much kinder. He has won each of the three Opening Day assignments he's been given since signing a four-year, $60 million contract before the 2009 season.

Lowe allowed consecutive one-out singles to Werth and Ryan Zimmerman in the first inning, then left runners stranded at the corners. The only other single Lowe surrendered came via Danny Espinosa's second-inning dribbler in front of the plate.

Lowe's 105-pitch debut ended after he issued a two-out walk to Zimmerman in the sixth. Gonzalez called upon left-handed reliever Eric O'Flaherty, who surrendered a single to Adam LaRoche and then exhaled after shortstop Alex Gonzalez knocked down Michael Morse's liner.

Espinosa made things interesting with a one-out double off O'Flaherty in the seventh. But the Nats' second baseman was stranded at third when Gonzalez brought in right-handed reliever Peter Moylan to face right-handed pinch-hitter Jerry Hairston, who was lifted for left-handed hitter Laynce Nix.

Moylan has struggled against left-handed hitters, but used an improved changeup to strike out Nix.

"Our bullpen is going to be some kind of good all year long," Lowe said. "We have every type of situation covered out there."

Jonny Venters worked a perfect eighth and Craig Kimbrel proved perfect again in the ninth to notch the save and give Gonzalez reason to truly enjoy the start of a new season.

"From D-Lowe to all the way to Craig at the end, a lot of good things happened," Gonzalez said.

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