By JUSTIN EINHORN
(AP) -- Other than the year the Nationals made their debut in Washington, this may be their most highly anticipated home opener to date.
Expectations seem bigger than they have ever been for the Nationals, coming home following a successful season-opening road trip to face the Cincinnati Reds on Thursday.
Washington (4-2) has not had a winning season since the Montreal Expos moved there in 2005, and the franchise's lone playoff appearance came in 1981. Many fans are optimistic, though, with some budding young stars joined by key offseason additions - like Thursday's scheduled starter, Gio Gonzalez.
The biggest star is Stephen Strasburg, whose strong performances led to a season-opening victory at Chicago and Wednesday's 4-0 win in New York. The Nationals won twice in each of those three-game sets, and a victory to open this four-game series would mark the club's best start since 2001.
Washington, which hasn't won a home opener since 2007, was 44-36 at Nationals Park last season.
"It's way more fun to play in a stadium packed with your fans than no fans or, even worse, fans from another town," said Jayson Werth, who has reached base in seven of his last 10 plate appearances.
The pitching staff has keyed the strong start, posting a 2.25 ERA with 57 strikeouts in 52 innings.
Gonzalez (0-0, 9.82 ERA) is the only Washington starter to have struggled. The 2011 All-Star for Oakland went 3 2-3 innings Saturday as he gave up four runs, seven hits and three walks in a 7-4 win over the Cubs.
"I was in the strike zone," Gonzalez said. "I was making these guys swing the bat. If I could go back, I wouldn't change a thing I did."
The left-hander dominated his only start against Cincinnati, yielding an unearned run and striking out nine in seven innings of Oakland's 6-4, 10-inning loss June 21, 2010.
He'll face another promising pitcher coming off a mediocre debut with his new team.
Mat Latos (0-1, 7.71) arrived in an offseason trade with San Diego after posting a combined 3.21 ERA over the past two seasons. The 24-year-old right-hander didn't get through five innings only once in 31 starts last year but failed to do so Saturday, allowing four runs and seven hits in 4 2-3 innings of an 8-3 loss to Miami.
"A new ballclub, a new season, I wanted to do well for the fans," Latos said. "When runners got on base, I tried to be too perfect."
He's been better against the Nationals, going 3-1 with a 2.19 ERA. The lone loss came last season, giving up Michael Morse's two-run homer in a 2-1 defeat June 10.
Washington announced Thursday that Morse would be shut down for the next six weeks due to an injured back muscle.
Cincinnati also is missing a key bat, with All-Star Brandon Phillips (hamstring) likely to sit out a third straight game.
The Reds (3-3) overcame his absence and a three-run deficit Wednesday to beat St. Louis 4-3. They had a season-high 14 hits after entering the game batting .201.
"You just don't know when they're going to start hitting the ball," manager Dusty Baker said. "It was sure nice to see them come around today."
Joey Votto scored the winning run on Chris Heisey's ninth-inning single and tied a career high with four hits after entering the game 3 for 16.
Batting one spot ahead of the 2010 NL MVP appears to be benefitting rookie Zack Cozart, who has hit safely in all six games from the No. 2 hole and is at .455.
Cincinnati won four of six against the Nationals last season, but both losses came in Washington.
Updated April 12, 2012