Atlanta Braves (0-0) at Washington Nationals (0-0), 1:05 p.m. Read more:

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Though they are coming off their first playoff appearance in five years, the Atlanta Braves are still set to begin a new chapter of their storied franchise.
The Washington Nationals will just be happy if they can take some baby steps forward in bringing a winning season to the nation's capital.
Led by new manager Fredi Gonzalez, Atlanta kicks off its 2011 season against Washington in the opener of a three-game series at Nationals Park.
The Braves will begin a season without Bobby Cox as their manager for the first time since 1989, one year before Cox began his second tenure with the club. In total, he managed the Atlanta franchise for 25 seasons, winning over 2,000 games, five National League pennants and the 1995 World Series before retiring at the end of the 2010 season.
Atlanta tried to send Cox out on top, winning the NL Wild Card to return to the postseason for the first time since 1995, but was defeated in four games by the San Francisco Giants in the National League Division Series.
Gonzalez was hired on Oct. 13 to replace Cox after being fired by the Marlins in June. He spent four season's on Cox's staff from 2003-06 and went 276-279 during his three-and-a-half year tenure with Florida.
Dan Uggla will start at second for the Braves after being acquired from Florida this offseason and he will add some power to Atlanta's lineup. Uggla set career bests last season with a .287 average, 33 homers and 105 runs batted in, and is the only second baseman in MLB history to notch four straight seasons of at least 30 homers.
The acquisition of Uggla cost the Braves All-Star utilityman Omar Infante and reliever Mike Dunn and also moved All-Star Martin Prado to left field, while rookie Freddie Freeman is set to start at first.
Not everything is new for Atlanta as Chipper Jones is back for his 18th season with the club. Set to turn 39 in April, Jones is looking to bounce back from left knee surgery that ended his season early last year and the former MVP and 2008 NL batting champion hit .387 in 21 games this spring.
Taking the ball for the Braves on Opening Day for a third straight season is 37-year Derek Lowe, who was second on the club last year with 16 wins but also had a club-high 12 losses in 33 starts with a 4.00 earned run average. The righty, though, did win his final five starts of 2010 with a 1.17 ERA before yielding just three runs in a pair of playoff losses.
Lowe faced the Nationals five times last year, going 2-3 with a 3.52 ERA.
Washington will counter with its own veteran in Livan Hernandez, who went just 10-12 in 2010 despite a solid 3.66 ERA over a club-high 33 starts. The 36- year-old also topped 200 innings pitched for the 10th time in his 15 seasons.
The right-handed Hernandez, who is set to make his fourth Opening Day start with the franchise, went 2-1 with a 2.35 ERA in five starts against the Braves a season ago, yielding two runs or less in four of those outings.
Hernandez will try to get Washington's season off on the right foot after the club posted its fifth straight losing season last year. Though they avoided a third straight 100-loss campaign, the Nationals haven't finished above .500 since the Montreal-based club went 83-79 in 2003.
Help is on the way as Stephen Strasburg, the top pick of the 2009 draft, had an outstanding debut last season that was cut short due to an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. He should be able to contribute again full- time by 2012, which is also when 2010 top overall pick Bryce Harper may be ready for the big leagues.
Those two will join third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and right fielder Jayson Werth to form a solid core in Washington. Werth will make his Nats debut this afternoon after signing a seven-year, $126 million dealt this offseason. He spent his previous four years with the Phillies, hitting .296 last season with a career-high 106 runs scored while averaging 29 homers and 84 RBI over the previous three campaigns.
Washington, though, did lose first baseman Adam Dunn to free agency and replaced him with former Diamondback Adam LaRoche after failing to land both Derrek Lee and Carlos Pena. LaRoche, who began his career with the Braves, had a career-best 100 RBI a season ago with 25 homers and a .261 average.
Second base will also feature a new look in Danny Espinosa, who should improve a defense that committed 127 errors last season. Center fielder Rick Ankiel, another new addition, should also help.
Nationals catcher Ivan Rodriguez enters his second season with the club and the 14-time All-Star will play in the 2,500th game of his career today.
Washington won the season series with Atlanta last year, besting its NL East rival in 10 of the 18 meetings. That included a victory in six of nine at Nationals Park.

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