The Washington Nationals will travel to Kissimmee, FL Tuesday to get their first look at their closest NL East rivals the Atlanta Braves. The game will be played at Champions Park which is appropriate, because both teams have aspirations of winning a title this season. To do this, the Nationals and Braves must first deal with one another.
Washington surprised many in 2012 by winning 98 games and the NL East pennant. One of the reasons for their success was getting the jump on Atlanta. The Nationals built an 8 1/2 game lead on the Braves in August, and held off a late charge to win the division by four games. Washington advanced to the best-of-five NL Divisional Series, while Atlanta played a wild card game at home against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Braves lost to St. Louis and then watched as the Cardinals defeated the Nationals in the NLDS.
This season, Atlanta hopes to avoid playing in the wildcard game, and would like to force Washington to do so. The Braves made two huge off season moves in acquiring outfielders B.J. Upton and Justin Upton. Along with Jason Hayward, they will give Atlanta one of the best outfields in baseball. Washington stood pat for the most part, but did trade for center fielder Denard Span and signed closer Rafael Soriano.
Tuesday’s spring training game will be played in a relaxed setting, but the Braves and Nationals will do battle immediately in the regular season, as the teams will meet seven times in the season’s first month. The Nationals will host the Braves for a three-game set beginning on April 12. Washington will end April and begin May with a four-game series in Atlanta. After the first four weeks of the season, someone will hold an early lead in head-to-head competition.
The importance of those early games can not be overstated. It was the first half of last season which allowed the Nationals to win the East. They took over first place in April and never looked back. While everyone waited for the Braves and Philadelphia Phillies to make a move, Washington continued to play steady baseball and increased their lead. The Nationals did not dominate Atlanta or Philadelphia in head to head competition, but won enough to keep them at bay.
Washington will look to do the same in 2013, but the Braves intend to turn the tables. Atlanta found out how hard it is to stay alive in a one and done playoff. They want to win the division and the Nationals stand in their way.
The first matchup on Tuesday will be played at the Walt Disney World vacation resort. Both teams had better enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, because there will be no time to rest come April.