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Atlanta Braves' Ramiro Pena, right, slides past Washington Nationals catcher Jhonatan Solano (23) to score during the third inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, in Kissimmee, Fla.
Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper, right, watches his double along with Atlanta Braves catcher Christian Bethancourt, left, during the third inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, in Kissimmee, Fla.
Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper runs behind Atlanta Braves catcher Christian Bethancourt to score a run during the fifth inning of a spring training baseball game Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, in Kissimmee, Fla.
Atlanta Braves' Ramiro Pena, left, slides across home plate to score as Washington Nationals catcher Jhonatan Solano (23) handles the throw during the third inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, in Kissimmee, Fla.
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman were walking back to the Atlanta clubhouse, having finishing up a stint in the batting cages on a rainy morning, when they spotted Bryce Harper sitting at the end of the Washington dugout.
They went over to shake hands and chat for a few minutes, their first chance to catch up with the Nationals young star this season.
It won’t be the last time they meet.
This has all the makings of a great baseball rivalry: two youthful teams in the same division, both poised for long-term success but likely to be in each other’s way.
“You definitely know what’s across the table,” said Uggla, the Braves’ second baseman, before the teams met in a spring training game Tuesday.
Last year, they battled all season for the NL East title, the Nationals leading most of the way with the Braves in hot pursuit. Washington finished with a league-leading 98 wins — four games ahead of Atlanta, though both made the playoffs.
After each lost to St. Louis in the postseason (the Braves in a disputed one-game playoff, the Nationals in a bitter division series), they began making moves with an eye on a longer October run, ever mindful of what their division rival was up to.
The Braves signed B.J. Upton and traded for his younger brother, Justin, to give their offense a much needed boost from the right side of the plate. The Nationals traded for a true leadoff hitter, Denard Span, and signed closer Rafael Soriano, adding to a team that already includes two of baseball’s brightest young players, Harper and pitcher Stephen Strasburg.
“You’ve got to prepare,” Uggla said. “If they make a move, you’ve constantly got to do what it takes to be competitive. I feel like we did that this year.”
Davey Johnson is also impressed with Atlanta’s offseason moves, believing the Braves addressed their major weakness from the last few seasons — a lineup that was heavy on lefties.
That said, the Washington manager made it clear what his team’s mindset will be.
World Series or bust.
“We’ve already won a (division) pennant. We’ve been in the postseason,” Johnson said. “With that experience and the talent level that’s here, our goals should be higher. There’s no sense romancing anybody and telling you, ‘Geez, we’d be lucky to win our division, we’d be lucky to go far in the playoffs.’ ... But I don’t think I’m telling these players anything they don’t believe themselves.”
The most impressive thing about both teams is their youth.
Uggla is the only Atlanta regular older than 30, while the Nationals have a couple of 30-somethings, Adam LaRoche and Jason Werth. Most of the Braves’ top pitchers — closer Craig Kimbrel, expected opening day starter Kris Medlen — are in their 20s. Ditto for the Nationals, whose lone starter over 30 is the newcomer Haren.
Of course, most of the focus in Washington is on Harper, who’s all of 20, and the 24-year-old Strasburg, who doesn’t have to worry about getting shut down before the playoffs this season.
“If we all stay together, continue to play well, stay injury-free, continue to improve, this team could be a real good team for a real long time,” Espinosa said. “I think a lot of us want to stay here and see how good this team can be.”
Ditto for the Braves.
Pujols preparing for opening day
TEMPE, Ariz. — Albert Pujols is nearly ready to start running on the field in the Los Angeles Angels slugger’s deliberate recovery from offseason surgery on his right knee.
Pujols is taking batting practice and running on a treadmill at spring training, and he participated in fielding drills Tuesday. He’s expected to start running on the field later this week. The $240 million first baseman isn’t expected to play in a Cactus League game until mid-March, but Angels manager Mike Scioscia has no doubt Pujols will be ready for opening day.
Pujols is the Angels’ only position player who hasn’t played a game in spring training yet. New right fielder Josh Hamilton debuted for Los Angeles against Arizona on Tuesday.
Masterson is Indians’ opening-day starter
GOODYEAR, Ariz. — New Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona has named Justin Masterson his starter for opening day.
Francona told the right-hander in the dugout Tuesday before Cleveland played the Kansas City Royals.
It will be the second time Masterson starts a season opener. A year ago, the 28-year-old struck out 10 over eight innings against the Blue Jays in Cleveland, allowing two hits and one run in a game that the Indians went on to lose in 16 innings, 7-4.
The Indians open in Toronto on April 2. Their home opener against the New York Yankees on April 8 already is sold out.
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