Friday’s home opener for the Nationals brought much of what we’ve come to expect from the budding rivalry between Washington and the Atlanta Braves. There was great pitching (despite both starters battling illness), it came down to the final at-bat, and there was a good deal of controversy.
Though it was just one game, it felt like a preview of much more to come in the 2014 season. These two teams are on a collision course as they battle for the National League East division title. Whoever wins, it will probably come down to the final week of September, and a lot of games just like Friday’s.
“There’s going to be some close ones,” Adam LaRoche said. “That’s nothing new, we’ve had that a lot in the past. It seems like every time we play these guys, if it’s not extra innings, it’s really close games.”
“They’re always big games against these guys,” Jordan Zimmermann said. “It’s going to be a battle every time and there are going to be close games like this. Hopefully we come out on top for most of them.”
In 2012 the Nationals were the division champs with a MLB-best 98 wins, but last year the Braves broke through and took the division with a record of 96-66.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said his team knows it will be a fight to the finish, no matter who is the defending champions.
“Last year was last year. You get a nice pat on the back and it’s over with. Every series is important. I know we play them six different series, every series is important. It doesn’t matter whether it’s April or September.”
The Braves took the first of 19 meetings this season in Friday’s 2-1 game at Nationals Park. It was a sellout crowd of 42,834 and a great audience for a wild game.
Braves outfielder Justin Upton was involved in a controversial play in the fifth inning when a ball hit to his area was first ruled an inside-the-park home run for Ian Desmond before a manager’s challenge overturned it into a ground-rule double. Upton was then booed every time he stepped to the plate or made a play in the outfield.
“It was kind of amusing, because I thought I made the right play,” Upton said. “It’s always fun. The crowds are good, everybody’s in to it. There’s a lot of energy so we enjoy it.”
Right fielder Jason Heyward said the rivalry is there because the teams are similar in the young talent on their rosters.
“This division is very good baseball, very competitive baseball. There’s a lot of good pitching, a lot of good hitters. You see a lot of rosters that have at least two or three guys that could be MVP candidates. You also see a lot of rosters with guys who could be Cy Young pitchers. It’s a fun division. It’s really competitive. Games like that, they bring the best out of everybody.”
Each team brought new players into the rivalry this offseason. For the Braves, both Brian McCann and Tim Hudson left via free agency. They also acquired Ervin Santana, Ryan Doumit and promoted several pitchers from their minor league system.
The Nationals beefed up their bench and added Doug Fister and Jose Lobaton through trades. The core players remain the same for each team, but there are new faces.
“We gotta figure out each other,” Ian Desmond said. “They’ve got some new pieces, we’ve got some new pieces. It’s going to be fun all year and that was definitely a good ballgame.”