Apr 4, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT
For all the rehashing and overanalyzing that took place at the end of the 2013 season, anyone who was trying to figure out what went wrong for the Nationals really could point to one simple fact: They couldn’t beat the Braves.
The Nationals were beaten up by their division rivals, going 6-13 against Atlanta and ultimately finishing 10 games back in the NL East. Suppose they merely held their own against the Braves and went 10-9. They would have wound up 90-72, only two games back. And suppose they reversed their fortunes against Atlanta altogether and went 13-6 in head-to-head matchups. Then they would have wound up 93-69, winning the division by four games.
Of course, none of that happened. And it’s perhaps too simplistic to attribute the Nationals’ underachievement last season entirely to their play against one opponent.
But this much can be said with certainty: If the Nationals are going to take back the NL East title in 2014, they’re going to have to play considerably better against the defending division champs.
The road begins today, when the Braves march into Nationals Park for this season’s home opener, a highly anticipated, early season showdown between the NL East’s best.
Just don’t try to get anybody wearing a Nats uniform to publicly say this is an especially important series.
“Not any more important than it was to play well here, or it will be to play the series after that,” Ryan Zimmerman said yesterday at Citi Field following his team’s series sweep of the Mets. “The goal is to win every series. Whether we’re playing the Mets, the Braves, the Cubs, the Padres, we try and win every series. We’ll go home, and that will be the goal for this weekend.”
The Nationals have been extremely careful not to say anything that could wind up on Atlanta’s bulletin board. Certainly they were humbled last year by the lopsided season series between the two clubs and enter this season with tremendous respect for their opponents.
“They’re a good team,” 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.”
Home openers already feature plenty of extra buzz. Add the Braves to the mix, and Nationals Park will be filled with energy this afternoon when both teams take the field.
There is, however, a major question the Nationals must answer before the first pitch is thrown at 1:05 p.m.: Who will throw that first pitch?
Tanner Roark was supposed to make the start, but the young right-hander was bumped up to yesterday’s game in New York after Jordan Zimmermann fell ill. Zimmermann went home early, and the Nationals are hoping their 19-game winner will feel well enough to make this start.
If not? Well, Ross Detwiler pitched two innings out of the bullpen yesterday. Taylor Jordan threw a simulated game on Tuesday, preparing himself for his scheduled start Sunday. So that leaves … Craig Stammen and a bunch of other relievers?
“I don’t know,” manager Matt Williams said after yesterday’s game. “We’ll have to see how it all plays out. We’ll get a report on (Zimmermann) and certainly monitor him tonight and tomorrow and see where he’s at.”
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