Braves vs. Nats, Pt. 1: Let's do this

WASHINGTON --  It's the first of 19 games between the Braves and Nationals, whose rivalry has become the best one in the NL East, akin to what the Braves and Mets once were, and then what the Braves and Phillies became for more than a half-decade.

The Phillies are old, the Mets are improved but still too banged-up to contend this season, and the young but talented Marlins are better than most people realized, but probably don’t have enough to stay in the race for even half of the 162-game marathon.

The Braves and Nats? It should be interesting. The Nats are going to try to do to the Braves what the ATLiens did to them last year, when the Braves swept a three-game series April 12-14 here at Nationals Park, won all five April games between the teams, and 11 of the first 14 head-to-head matchups through mid-August, by which point the race was over.

The Nationals swept the Mets in New York this week while the Braves won two of three at Milwaukee. Which nicely sets up this series that starts that starts this afternoon here in D.C. Remember, the Nats were a near-unanimous pick among baseball pundits to win not just the NL East, but the league pennant. Most are picking them again this year, particularly given the Braves pitching injuries in spring training.

Last year, the Braves held a 4-1/2-game lead after 13 games and were 10 games ahead of Washington by July 30.

This year, the team play each other six times in the first two weeks of the season, and both will try to set  the tone, to send a message like the one the Braves sent last year (they came back and swept them again in the second series at Nats Park last year, in June).

“We tried to come out every day and get a win against theses guys,” said Ramiro Pena, who had a very big home run at Nats Park last April. “We do against every team, but these two teams have some kind of rivalry, so it’s always good to beat them. We tried to play good, get every opportunity to win the game.”

And setting a tone this year? “That’s what they want, that’s what we want, so it’s going to be a good series,” Pena said. “It’s always a good series against these guys. They’ve got a great team also.”

Chris Johnson said after  homering for the only run in Wednesday’s win at Milwaukee that the Braves were excited about getting to D.C. to play the Nats. “It’s always fun to place those guys,” he said.

Jason Heyward also used that word – fun – on Wednesday when he mentioned coming to D.C. for this weekend series.

But the Braves also were careful not to sound like they were putting too much emphasis on this series, particularly the closer it got. I asked Uggla late this morning about how the Braves set the tone for the season last year when they swept the Nationals in mid-April here in D.C., and mentioned  how the Nats would like to do the same this year to them.

“We’re concentrating on today’s game,” he said. “We’ll worry about tomorrow when tomorrow comes. We want to win, for whatever reason – set the tone, or just from the fact that we’re going out to win the game. But we do know they have a really good team and they’re ready. So are we. But you can’t base the rest of the year on the series or one game.”

Then he was quick to add: “Does that mean these games  aren’t important? Absolutely not. These games are very important, and we want to come out and win them.”

Say what you will, there’s no question that a sweep by either team would send a message and give that squad the early momentum, not to mention a lead of 3-1/2 games if it were the Nats who swept, or 2-1/2 games if it were the Braves. A year ago, the Braves never looked back after sweeping the Nats here.

“We got off to a good start and they had some injuries and were playing catch-up,” Uggla said. “When you get off to a good start – you’re going to have injuries, you’ve just got to be able to battle through them and keep your head above water. They were trying to gain ground while fighting through injuries. That’s  tough to do. We were fortunate enough to get off to a good start before our injuries came. We still battled through them. I think that’s kind of the kicker there.

“But yeah, they’re ready to play. They’re mad about last year, the way last year went. And we’re excited about the way last year went and excited about the team we have this year. So it’s going to be a fun series, like it always is.”

There’s that word again. Fun. Yes, these guys do enjoy these energized rivalry games in front of big crowds. Especially when the race is tight, as it always is this early.

“I’m looking, we’re looking, to try to win series,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “It doesn’t matter how many times you play them, it doesn’t matter how many … It’s early April, you’ve got to try to win every single game and every single series. We always preach (win) two out of three. It doesn’t chance anything for me when you play them.”

But a sweep in April, or even a 2-1 series win on the road, does have the potential to put a seed in the opponents’ minds. To let them know you’re still here, that you’re not going anywhere.

“They have the best starting pitching in the game,” Uggla said. “It’s going to be a battle. I feel like our lineup is as good as anybody’s. We’ve got a great bullpen – I think we have the best bullpen in the game. And our starting pitchers are good. They’ve got a great lineup as well. So it’s going to be fun.”

Braves lineup Friday

  1. Heyward RF
  2. BUpton CF
  3. Freeman 1B
  4. Johnson 3B
  5. JUpton LF
  6. Uggla 2B
  7. Gattis C
  8. Simmons SS
  9. Hale RH

• This was the only song on Waylon's "Honky Tonk Heroes" that wasn't written or co-written by Billy Joe Shaver, but it's a great one. Here it by clicking here.

“WE HAD IT ALL” by Waylon Jennings (T. Seals, D. Fritts)

I can hear the wind a-blowing in my mind

Just the way it used to sound through the Georgia pines

And you were there to answer when I called

You and me we had it all.

Remember how I used to touch your hair

While reaching for the feeling that was always there

You were the best thing in my life I can recall

You and me we had it all.

I know that we can never live those times again

So I let my dreams take me back to where we have been

Then I'll stay with you girl as long as I can

Oh, it was so good, oh, it was so good

Oh, it was so good when I was your man.

I'll never stop believing in your smile

Even though you didn't stay it was all worth while

You were the best thing in my life I can recall

You and me we had it all.

You and me we had it all...