The Braves are coming to Washington

brushback_harperAfter facing the new-look Atlanta Braves six times in spring training, the Nationals get their first look at their National League East division rival in the regular season in this weekend’s three-game series. At 8-1, the Braves have the best record in baseball, one game ahead of the Nationals in the division standings. And much like last weekend, much the Nationals faced fellow NL contender and division-winner Cincinnati, the marquee matchup is a valuable test early in the season but not a back-breaking, read-too-much-into-the-outcomes series because, remind yourself often, it is still only the second week of the season.

“We know they got a good team and we know they’re not going to go away,” reliever Ryan Mattheus said. “For us to make a statement and show them we’re going to play them tough all year, this first series is going to set the tone.”

To this point, the Nationals’ competition has been stiffer than the Braves’. The Braves are off to a hot start thanks to their home run-bashing offense (an NL-leading 15 home runs) but they have played the Cubs, Phillies and Marlins, teams with a combined record of 8-19. The Nationals have played the Marlins, Reds and White Sox, whose combined 10-17 record belies the talent of the last two teams in that list. The Braves, however, have done so with an already hampered roster.

Three key Braves will miss the series with injuries: slugging first baseman Freddie Freeman (oblique), catcher Brian McCann (shoulder) and left-handed reliever Jonny Venters (elbow). Venters’s absence will likely be the one most noticed by the Nationals, who collectively have hit .161 (10 for 62) off him.

This winter, the Braves addressed their most apparent weakness: their left-handed dominated lineup. They signed free agent center fielder B.J. Upton and traded for outfielder Justin Upton and infielder Chris Johnson, and lost center fielder Michael Bourn and catcher David Ross to free agency and utility man and Nationals tormentor Martin Prado via trade. The Nationals and Braves were both seeking leadoff hitters this winter and looked at the some of the same players. B.J. Upton had initial talks with the Nationals in November before Adam LaRoche re-signed and Denard Span heard rumblings about other teams in the NL East possibly seeking him.

“I like what they did over the winter,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said. “I always thought their ballclub was a little too left-handed. They tried to beef up the right-handed side of their bench and when they added the Upton boys. And Chris Johnson was a great addition, too. Some really good right-handed bats and of course some younger players playing awfully well, [Andrelton] Simmons and [Evan] Gattis and [Juan] Francisco. They’re a very balanced ballclub now.”

Last season, facing the Braves with starters Ross Detwiler (Friday’s starter), Stephen Strasburg (Saturday’s starter) and Gio Gonzalez (Sunday’s starter) would have been an advantage for the Nationals. Although left-handed Gonzalez has struggled some against the Braves in the past (4.57 ERA in four starts), having two left-handers would create a disadvantage for the Braves. But now, their more balanced lineup is better equipped. The Braves will send right-hander Julio Teheran (a top pitching prospect), right-hander Tim Hudson and left-hander Paul Maholm to the mound in the next three games.

The teams played five memorable series in 2012. The Nationals won 10 of the 18 meetings, outscoring the Braves 84-69. There will be added excitement when the teams face off against starting Friday, but again, it’s too early to read too much into the outcomes whichever way they go.

“We have to play the same way as we do against the Marlins, as we do against the Phillies, as we do against the Mets,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “As soon as you take other teams for granted or only get up when you play the Braves, or the Dodgers or teams like that, that’s when you get in trouble.”

FROM THE POST

The Nationals sweep the series against the White Sox with a 7-4 win after Ryan Zimmerman makes them pay for an intentional walk of Bryce Harper.

Barry Svrluga explores the Braves new outfield and the Nationals outfield ahead of this weekend’s series.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Danny Espinosa’s new attitude, Ian Desmond’s hot streak lift the Nationals

Dan Haren will get a second chance to make an impression with the Nationals

Paul Konerko on Bryce Harper: ‘He can do it all’

Nationals catchers succeeding despite splitting time

White Sox at Nationals discussion thread: Game 9

John Wall throws out much-improved ceremonial first pitch

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse was off.

Altoona 5, Harrisburg 4: Starter Paul Demny allowed five runs on seven hits over six innings. Anthony Rendon his first home run of the season and finished 2 for 3. Brian Goodwin added a triple. Rick Hague went 3 for 4 with a double.

Potomac was off.

Delmarva 7, Hagerstown 4 (10): Starter Ivan Pineyro allowed four runs on six hits over five innings. Second baseman Tony Renda drove in two runs and finished 1 for 4.

Also on Nationals Journal

John Wall throws out much-improved ceremonial first pitch