WASHINGTON – With the Philadelphia Phillies limping to the starting line this season, four-time National League East champions looking a bit vulnerable, you might think the Braves would place utmost importance on getting off to a fast start.
You know, in order to build an early lead on the division rivals.
But that’s not how they’re approaching it. The Braves enter their season opener Thursday (1:05 p.m.) against the Washington Nationals both confident and realistic, knowing the race is a 162-game marathon that won’t be decided in April.
“It’s hard to even really talk about any other team,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “We want to get off to a fast start for ourselves. We’ve just got to focus on what we can do and not worry about the Phillies or anybody else.
“We just have to take care of business as it comes.”
Derek Lowe (16-12, 4.00 ERA in 2010) goes for his third consecutive opening-day win against familiar foe Livan Hernandez (10-12, 3.66 ERA) at Nationals Park in the first game of the Fredi Gonzalez era.
Gonzalez is the Braves’ new manager and Dan Uggla is the new slugger in a lineup that features Martin Prado at the top, McCann and surgically repaired (and seemingly rejuvenated) Chipper Jones in the middle, and Jason Heyward as arguably the best No. 6 hitter in baseball.
“I’m excited,” said Uggla, who was traded from Florida to the Braves in November and signed a five-year, $62 million extension before playing an inning with his new squad. “We’ve got a really good team, and I feel like we’re ready to get this thing going.
“I’m just ready for the games to start to count. Ready to flip that switch.”
Uggla hit just one homer in spring training, but is known for mediocre (or worse) springs. Like he’s known for remarkable consistency during the regular season.
He averaged nearly 31 homers and 93 RBIs in five seasons with the Marlins, and hit more than 30 homers each of the past four when Gonzalez was his opening-day manager.
Gonzalez expects Uggla to be Uggla, to flip that proverbial switch now that it counts.
Whether he and the Braves come blazing out of the blocks, or stumble a bit the first week or two, or play at a level somewhere in between those, McCann said the important thing to keep in mind is the long haul and one word: consistency.
Spoken like someone who spent the past five-plus seasons with Bobby Cox as his manager.
Even if the Braves were to sweep the Nationals and the Phillies were swept by the Houston Astros in their opening series, McCann and other veteran Braves know it would not signify that some new course had been set.
“I think in ’07 we went into Philly and swept an opening series, then we struggled,” McCann said. “It’s about consistency for six months. You don’t want to have that one really bad month. Just stay consistent throughout the year.”
Those ’07 Braves swept an opening series at Philadelphia and started out 7-1 and 24-12, then went 60-66 the rest of the way and missed the playoffs.
Conversely, the Braves started out 8-14 last season, including a nine-game losing streak through April 29. They went 83-57 the rest of the way, led the division for three months, and hung for the wild card despite injuries to key players including Jones and Prado.
“Now, everybody is healthy and ready to go,” said Prado, whose All-Star season was interrupted by a broken pinkie, then ended in late September by a torn oblique muscle and hip pointer.
Prado was switched from second base to left field to accommodate Uggla, whose right-handed power was a component the Braves had tried to add for several years. Prado would prefer to play the infield, but he made the move without complaint.
He saw the damage that Uggla wrought upone the Braves when he was slugging for the Marlins, and now Prado is as excited as everyone else to have him as a teammate.
“I’m always excited [about a new season],” Prado said. “Every time I break camp with 25 guys, just having the same goal and being on the same page, it’s always exciting.”
But with this team, he feels a little extra twinge of excitement about the possibilities.
“I feel good about this team,” he said. “I’m not going to just put a lot of rainbows in everybody’s head, but I’m just trying to be realistic and I tell you, I like what I see. I like what we have now.”
So did McCann, who sensed a little different atmosphere as opening day neared.
“Everybody’s leaving healthy, our pitching’s healthy, and the excitement around here is pretty high,” said the five-time All-Star catcher. “We just kind of want to build off what we’ve been doing the last couple of years, keep winning ballgames.”