Nationals and Braves face off for the first of many meetings

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Beginning Friday, the Nationals will play the first of their 19 regular-season games against their toughest division rival, the Atlanta Braves. Last season, the Braves began the season 12-1. By the third week of the season, the Braves already had a five-game leg up in the division. It was a lead the Braves never relinquished en route to a National League East title.

This first series against the Braves this season is an important opportunity for the Nationals, who face them six times by the end of the second week of the season. Taking an early lead against the Braves in the division standings could put the Nationals in a more comfortable spot instead of worrying about catching the top team.

“Coming off the year last where we got behind the eight ball so bad, we realize the importance of getting off to a good start, playing those teams in our division well early,” reliever Tyler Clippard said.

The Braves will be weakened early in the season, so the Nationals have an ideal situation in which to build a division lead. Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen both underwent their second Tommy John surgeries in spring training. Starters Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd are out for at least the first month of the season. Minor was sidelined in spring training with urinary tract surgery and then dealt with shoulder tendinitis, while Floyd, an offseason signing, is returning from Tommy John surgery. The rash of injuries to starters two weeks before the start of the season forced the Braves to sign free agent right-hander Ervin Santana, who is building up innings in minor leagues.

To start the season, the Braves are employing a four-man rotation of Julio TeheranAlex WoodAaron Harang and David Hale. With Beachy and Medlen out, the Braves rotation is weaker. Offseason losses of Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm, who signed with the Giants and Dodgers, respectively, also hurt the starting rotation. A year ago, the rotation and bullpen buoyed the Braves’ all-or-nothing lineup. Now, the Braves’ starting depth is hurt, but the Nationals refuse to take their rival lightly.

“They’re a good team,” second baseman Danny Espinosa said. “They were a good team last year. It’s going to be another battle, another grind with them. It’ll be a fun series. A lot of competition between the two teams. I think it’ll be good.”

Once the Braves lost Beachy and Medlen, oddsmakers improved the Nationals’ odds of reaching the playoffs. Some analysts still believe the Braves to can reach the postseason, and it is certainly possible once the starters return, the top-notch bullpen performs and the lineup doesn’t strike out so much.

The Braves did little to add outside players this winter to the roster, instead inked about $280 million worth of deals to lock up their talented homegrown players to long-term contracts. Atlanta has perhaps the best defensive player in the entire sport, Andrelton Simmons; some of the best young hitters in baseball, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward; and power hitters Justin Upton and Evan Gattis. Offensive improvements by any of these players can help offset the lineup’s many strikeouts, especially those produced by B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, who hit .184 and .179 respectively last season.

Nationals players are excited to play in front of the home crowds at Nationals Park for the first time this season. They don’t publicly admit they view the Braves series any differently than the opening one against the Mets or an upcoming one against the Marlins. Taking a sizable early division lead would be nice, but they believe playing all-around baseball against a rival is more important.

“We have a really good team and we have a good chance no matter who we’re playing in the division whoever it is,” reliever Ross Detwiler said. “We’re going to see them again, definitely. So it’s always nice to go out there and play our game. Show them that we’re not going to make mistakes and we’re going to move runners over. We’re going to knock guys in with timely hitting and we’re going to throw the ball well. I think more so we really want to put an emphasis on showing them we’re going to play the game right and we’re not going to make mistake and kinda put some more pressure on them.”

FROM THE POST

On short notice, Tanner Roark steps in for sick Jordan Zimmermann and delivers solid six innings en route to an 8-2 win and sweep, writes Adam Kilgore.

The Mets and Braves series could set the tone for the Nationals season, writes Thomas Boswell.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Ross Detwiler fires two scoreless innings Thursday, but who will start Friday?

Clouds likely, rain unlikely for Nats’ home opener Friday

Nationals pitchers are striking out everyone

Jordan Zimmermann scratched with the flu, Tanner Roark to start

Drew Storen, the Nationals’ players union rep, on the new drug suspension rules

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Scranton/WB 4, Syracuse 1: Danny Rosenbaum started and allowed four runs on nine hits over five innings. Daniel Stange fired two scoreless innings; Manny Delcarmen and Christian Garcia each added a scoreless frame. Eury Perez, Zach Walters and Jhonatan Solano each smacked two hits.

Bowie 12, Harrisburg 6: Blake Schwartz started and allowed eight runs, six earned, on nine hits over 3 1/3 innings. Colin Bates allowed four runs, three earned, over two innings of relief. Mitch Canham homered, Cuttery Dykstra went 3 for 5 and Justing Bloxom drove in two runs.

Carolina 6, Potomac 3: Brian Rauh allowed two runs over five innings. Ian Dickson allowed four runs on two hits over two-thirds of an inning. Bryan Harper had a scoreless inning. Tony Renda went 2 for 4 with an RBI. Kevin Keyes and Brandon Miller each drove in a run.

Hagerstown 4, Rome 0: Nick Pivetta fired five scoreless innings and John Simms added four scoreless frames. Isaac Ballou and Drew Ward each smacked two hits. Ward had a double and triple.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.

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Adam Kilgore · April 3, 2014