Mets, Braves series could set the tone for the Washington Nationals season

As the Washington Nationals open their home season Friday afternoon, they need to keep two very different but equally important goals in mind for this season: Bludgeon the bums and edge the Braves.

If they do both, the Nats probably will win the NL East and, with the gift of an incredibly soft schedule, likely win so many games that they have home-field advantage in a playoff series. If they don’t, they’ll not only waste an obvious opportunity but watch Atlanta roll past them to another division crown.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Seldom has a team had a schedule as advantageous as the Nats. I’ve never seen one this extreme. They play 97 games against poor-to-awful teams that lost at least 86 games last year. And they face only 48 games against good-to-excellent teams that won 86 or more. That’s more than a 2-1 ratio — the softest schedule in MLB. Verily, some of the mighty will fall, and the meek will be exalted. Yeah, but not much.

Just as attention-riveting, 19 of those 48 Nats games against strong teams are against one club — the NL East champion Braves, who come to Washington for a three-game weekend series.

The first week of this season will capture one of the themes of the whole year. The Nats completed a three-game sweep of the miserable Mets in New York on Thursday. That’s the prototype. If the Nats don’t capitalize, the Braves probably will. Atlanta’s schedule is also laden with 57 games against NL East foes that lost 88 to 100 games last year.

The Nats’ other major test is standing up to the maturity, toughness and focus on fundamentals of the Braves, whom they play six times in the next 10 days. Last April, Atlanta won all five meetings, led the division by 41 / 2 games by May 1 and stomped the Nats all season, 13 games to six.

If the Nationals fail to take advantage of a wave of injuries in the Braves’ pitching rotation in their meetings this month, Atlanta will think, as it should, that the Nats talk a lot about talent but have a hard time with performance under pressure.

Last year, the Nats, after winning 98 games in 2012, disgraced themselves — a phrase that is seldom appropriate but is in this case — by going 7-24 against their three primary National League rivals, the Braves, Cardinals and Dodgers.

Can the Nats’ core players stand up to the league’s best? They did it in ’12, when they won the season series from the Braves (10-8) and the World Series champion Giants (5-1) and split a dozen games with the Cardinals, including their division series loss. Last year, the Nats weren’t outmatched, just completely outplayed, which actually ought to sting even worse.

This week, the Nats executed exactly as they should against bad teams such as the Mets, who can’t field, have a breathtakingly awful bullpen and don’t hit much either. In particular, when such teams get a lead, the Nats must patiently grind them to dust because, if they don’t panic — as they often did in 2013 — they can. Stephen Strasburg gave up a three-run first-inning homer on opening day; the Nats ignored the deficit, came from behind twice, once from their last strike, and won in extra innings.

On Thursday, scheduled starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann had flu-like symptoms — a bug that has run through the Nats all spring. Tanner Roark, primed to go Friday, jumped in as emergency starter and gave up two runs in the first inning because of a flyball lost in the sun, yet he ended up making the Mets look silly by the last four of his six innings.

I’ve always tended to be mush-brained about late-blooming pitchers with command and smarts. Roark has had six career starts. Call back after 50 more. But while the Mets’ supposed mega-prospect, Zack Wheeler, started the game throwing at 96 mph and then sank to 92-93 by the middle innings, without the secondary pitches or control to switch gears, Roark got progressively better. Once the Nats nosed ahead 3-2, Roark fanned the last four Mets he faced, using five pitches from a 71 mph curve to precise change-ups at 82 and swing-back fastballs at 93. Yes, they’re the Mets. But as long as he maintains similar stuff and command, plus moxie, it’s going to play. It always has. How long will that be? Stay tuned.

This weekend’s matchup with the Braves will bring big crowds, with Strasburg against young Braves standout Julio Teheran on Saturday and Nats rookie Taylor Jordan starting Sunday with a chance to show his wares while Doug Fister is on the disabled list. But the sweep of the Mets, if it’s the beginning of a pattern, is comparably important.

But will it be? The Nats also began ’13 with an impressive sweep of the terrible Marlins, 2-0, 3-0 and 6-1. What a juggernaut — just as predicted. Then the Nats met someone their own size, the Reds, who beat them (and Dan Haren) 15-0 in the fourth game of the year. Such small events should not start avalanches. For the best teams they don’t. But that game was the first hint of the Nats’ lost confidence.

Few seasons identify their themes so quickly. But this year’s Nats may set their year-long tone in the next month. They face the Braves and Cardinals 10 times in April — a true test. But by May 4, they also play 18 gamesagainst some of the game’s worst teams.

Opportunity knocks. Will it be the Nationals of ’12 or ’13 that open the door?

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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