Braves, Nats give taste of promising NL East battle
VIERA, Fla. -- Around this time every year, Spring Training starts feeling pretty long to the people coming to the ballpark every day. Major Leaguers have been in camp for a month, and it's still three weeks until Opening Day. Forgive them for being human, but sometimes it all drags a bit.
So whether they admit it or not, a game like Monday's adds just a little bit of extra juice to the lengthy Grapefruit League campaign. It was the Braves and the Nationals at Space Coast Stadium, and Washington trotted out what looked an awful lot like an Opening Day lineup. Two top contenders and two legitimate big league starting pitchers in an early installment of what should be one of the game's best rivalries this year.
That Washington lineup, and a string of Nats pitchers, got smacked by the Braves, 7-2. It tells us nothing about how the division may shake down, but it at least provides a reminder that the National League East features two of baseball's best teams, and they're going to go head to head delightfully often this year.
"I think any time you face the defending National League East champions, the division champions, it's fun to do that," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "But as far as, did we have a team meeting? We didn't do that kind of stuff."
With one change, Washington will very likely send out exactly the lineup that it used on Monday when Opening Day comes. Ryan Zimmerman should play third base instead of DH, replacing Chad Tracy at the hot corner, but that's it. Washington also used closer Rafael Soriano in this game.
"Maybe it does [have extra meaning], with the Braves being in our division, you want to send a message," said Washington catcher Kurt Suzuki. "We had a good lineup out there. It is Spring Training, but at the same time, I know the competitive nature in all of us. We want to go out there and win. It doesn't matter who. We want to go out there and win every game."
Atlanta didn't use a full regular-season lineup, but for a travel squad, it was representative enough. And lefty Paul Maholm showed why the Braves wanted to acquire him last year. Maholm is one of the keys to the Braves, who hope he can provide stable, solid innings at the back of their rotation to complement some promising but uncertain youngsters.
What the Braves mostly showed Monday, though, was offense. Justin and B.J. Upton, two of the regulars in the lineup, both drove in runs in the six-run Atlanta sixth inning. Atlanta should score runs this year, thanks to a lineup laden with power.
But Washington had reason to smile as well. For five innings, presumptive Opening Day starter Stephen Strasburg was rolling. He ran into trouble in the sixth, likely due to a combination of factors, but the Nationals' hopes lean in part on Strasburg pitching like an ace. For most of the day, he did just that.
"I guess I was dealing so much that I didn't really have much opportunity to get my command down out of the stretch," he quipped. "They ran into a couple balls and got a broken-bat bleeder and scored two. It's baseball."
At a minimum, we'll see these two teams meet 21 more times in 2012, two more in Florida and 19 in the regular season. If we're lucky, we'll get a few more in October.
This one didn't count, and the next two won't either. But there was still a little extra juice, a little extra excitement, to a matchup like this. Washington and Atlanta may be the two best teams in the NL in 2013, and they'll be contending for a division title, reprising a race that saw them finish four games apart in 2012.
None of this is to rule out the Phillies, or even the Mets or Marlins. Strange things happen in baseball seasons, and nobody thought the A's or Orioles would be playoff teams at this point last year. But there's no division in baseball that looks quite as much like a two-team battle -- and a fantastic two-team battle, at that -- as the NL East does.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.