Opposite dugout: Rebuilding Braves pose Nats' first test of new season

braves-logo.jpgManager: Fredi Gonzalez (6th season)

Record: 67-95 (fourth in NL East in 2015)

Last 10 games: Season opener

Who to watch: 1B Freddie Freeman (18 HR, 66 RBIs), CF Ender Inciarte (.303, 21 SB), RF Nick Markakis (.296/.370/.376) RHP Julio Teheran (11-8, 4.04 ERA), RHP Jason Grilli (2.94 ERA, 24 saves)

Season series vs. Nationals: First meeting (5-14 in 2015)

Pitching probables:

April 4: RHP Max Scherzer (14-12, 2.79 ERA) vs. RHP Julio Teheran (11-8, 4.04 ERA), 4:10 p.m., MASN2
April 6: RHP Stephen Strasburg (11-7, 3.46 ERA) vs. RHP Bud Norris (3-11, 6.72 ERA), 7:10 p.m., MASN

Inside the Braves:

Not so long ago, a season opener against the Braves would have been hailed as a supreme test for the Nationals, a series that pitted two teams likely to battle for the National League East title. But the Braves, who begin their final season at Turner Field with a two-game series against the Nationals, are now deep into a rebuilding project and no one considers them a legitimate threat for the division crown.

Does that mean the Nats can look past these two games and focus on their home opener Thursday against the Marlins? Not by a long shot. Baseball is a 162-game grind, and wins and losses in April can have a huge bearing on what happens in the season's waning weeks in September and October. Plus, despite the fact that they went 5-14 against the Nats in 2015, the Braves proved their usual pesky selves, and they're stocked with an interesting mix of experienced veterans, hungry youngsters and role players eager to show they belong in the majors.

Atlanta's 6-20 record in Grapefruit League play was the worst in the majors, though a favorite baseball cliché warns us not to put too much stock into spring or September numbers. Three of those losses came at the hands of the Nationals. Still, a new season is ripe with hope - even in cities where teams are expected to populate the division cellar.

The Braves will count heavily on two of their veteran hitters - right fielder Nick Markakis to get on base and first baseman Freddie Freeman to knock runs in. Ex-Oriole Markakis didn't flash much of his former power in his first season in Atlanta, but arrival of center fielder Ender Inciarte in a trade with the Diamondbacks gives the Braves some serious on-base capability atop their lineup. Freeman battled some right wrist problems last year and they sapped some of his power (that's one of the reasons the Braves acquired Tyler Moore from the Nationals last week, for first base insurance). The Braves are also hoping third baseman Hector Olivera, acquired in a trade with the Dodgers last season, adds some punch in the middle of the order, though the Cuban turns 31 on April 5 and will be getting his first extended look at major league pitching. Andrelton Simmons' steady glove is gone, replaced by Erick Aybar at shortstop after a trade with the Angels. The rest of the lineup is a mixed bag - guys who might contribute, though it also wouldn't be much of a surprise if they struggled.

Opening day starter Julio Teheran, 25, is clearly the best pitcher on the staff, but he's got a tall challenge in facing Nats ace Max Scherzer in a battle of right-handers in Monday's game. Though he started a career-high 33 games last season, Teheran's win total dropped from 14 to 11 and his ERA rose from 2.89 to 4.04. In 11 career starts against Washington, Teheran is 3-2 with a 3.65 ERA; last year, he failed to record a decision in three games with a 5.40 ERA. Wednesday's starter, Bud Norris, boasts the most experience in the rotation, but is coming off a terrible 2015 that saw him go 3-11 with a 6.72 ERA between the Orioles and Padres - a steep decline from his 15-8, 3.65 campaign in 2015 in Baltimore. But that's the kind of pitcher that lands with a retooling team.

If the Braves can take a lead to the ninth inning, veteran righty Jason Grilli will get the ball and a chance to close out a victory. Grilli's 2015 was short-circuited by a ruptured Achilles tendon, but he had 24 saves, a 2.94 ERA and 1.129 WHIP before the injury.

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