Friday, March 28, 2008

Opening Day for the Atlanta Braves

Sunday! Sunday! SUNDAY!!! It's the most wonderful time of the year. It's the final spring harbinger after the blooming dogwoods, the budding trees and the rumbling lawnmowers. It's the final signal that the long, gray winter is finally over. It should be a national holiday. It's Opening Day!

Yes, the baseball season has already begun. The Boston Red Sox and Oakland A's traveled all the way to Japan to open the major-league season with a two-game series in Tokyo. The Red Sox won 6-5 in ten innings Tuesday night. The A's got the series split with a 5-1 win Wednesday. Meanwhile, the other teams still have exhibition games to play.

So who came up with this schedule? The Atlanta Braves open their 2008 season Sunday in Washington with one game (a one-game series?) against the Nationals (ESPN, 8:05 p.m. ET). Tim Hudson will pitch the opener against a former Brave, Odalis Perez. The game will be the regular season debut of the new Nationals Park. The rest of the major league teams begin play on Monday, when the Braves return to Atlanta to open a three-game series (over four nights) against the Pirates. I'm confused already.

The Braves hung in the NL East race for as long as they could last year, but ultimately had to make way for the Phillies, who won the division race after the Mets had one of the greatest collapses in baseball history. Ahead by seven games with just seventeen to play, the Mets lost the division of the last day of the season. (Pardon me while I laugh at them one last time -- Ha Ha Ha!) The Mets dropped off a truckload of money ($137.5 million for six years) at Johan Santana's house to add one of baseball's best pitchers (82-35 over the past five years) to their roster. Talk about overcompensating!

The Braves should be a little better than they were last season when most of their problems started with the starting rotation. It was a return to the days of "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain." It was Hudson and Smoltz and "who the hell is this guy?" Tim Hudson and John Smoltz are still around, but it's kinda iffy as to whether Smoltz will make his scheduled start on April 6 or start the season on the disabled list. He had some stiffness in his pitching shoulder, but felt fine and expected to start after a bullpen session Thursday. Tom Glavine returns to Atlanta after a five-year stint in enemy territory. The future Hall of Famer is now 42 years old and probably won't flirt with 20 wins ever again, but should give the Braves some quality innings, something they were sadly lacking last year. Mike Hampton is also back after two years on the disabled list. The fragile pitcher gave Braves fans heart palpitations after suffering a groin pull during spring training but should be good to go unless he gets a hangnail or something. All of this should mean less pressure on the bullpen, which was badly overworked last season. Rafael Soriano, with only 13 major-league saves, will handle the closer role as long as he can.

Out in the field, Andruw Jones and Edgar Rentaria are gone. Mark Kotsay, Matt Diaz and Jeff Francoeur will try to get to some of those fly balls that Jones always handled effortlessly. Yunel Escobar takes over full-time for Rentaria at short.

The starting lineup should normally look like this:

1B: Mark Teixeira
2B: Kelly Johnson
SS: Yunel Escobar
3B: Chipper Jones
C: Brian McCann
OF: Jeff Francoeur, Mark Kotsay, Matt Diaz
SP: Tim Hudson, John Smoltz, Mike Hampton, Tom Glavine, Jair Jurrjens
Closer: Rafael Soriano

Expect a two-team race between the Mets and the Phillies again, but expect the Braves to be improved and challenging. With a few breaks and a little luck (and maybe a mid-season trade or two) the Braves might just make a return to the playoffs. A wildcard is not completely out of the question.

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