Apr 2, 2014; New York, NY, USA; Washington Nationals second baseman Anthony Rendon (6) and Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond (20) and left fielder Bryce Harper (34) celebrate a win against the New York Mets at the end of a game at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

After Opening Series Sweep, Larger Challenge Looms for Nationals

After an opening series against the New York Mets that featured superb pitching, timely hitting and several comebacks, the Washington Nationals return home today to take on the Atlanta Braves, a significantly stronger foe than our friends at Citi Field. That’s nothing against the Mets, they have a great young group of players that brings back memories of the wonderful “rebuilding” seasons the Nationals endured not so long ago. But barring an entirely possible miracle, the true competition for the division crown will be the Braves, and that competition starts in just a few hours.

The Nationals will play the Braves for three games at home this weekend before facing them again on the road next week, making the first half of April extremely important for the Nationals. In 2013, the Braves beat the Nationals five times in April, including an early month sweep at Nationals Park. While it was early in the season, the Nationals’ slow start against their division foes set them back permanently in the division, which the Braves ultimately won by 10 games.

For this reason, this weekend’s series against the Braves is extremely important for the Nationals, so much so that it’s outcome could have a strong impact on how the remainder of the season plays out for both teams. If the Nationals take two out of three or sweep, the next couple of weeks will be much, much less stressful for a team that failed to handle high expectations properly in 2013. But if the Braves come in and dominate the Nationals as they did last season, it could wind up costing the Nationals big time in the long run.

While the Nationals are the favorites to win the division, games against their rivals from the south are usually long and intense, with the occasional flares of temper and drama (Bryce Harper vs. Julio Teheran, anyone?). In other words, as good as both of these teams are on paper, it is impossible to predict how the 19 regular season matchups between these two teams will play out. One thing’s for certain, both of these teams will bring some very, very good pitching to the ballpark this weekend.

Although the Braves’ rotation has been significantly depleted due to costly spring training injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, Nationals hitters will still have their hands full against the likes of Teheran and young left-hander Alex Wood, who threw seven strong innings against the Milwaukee Brewers his last time out. But when it comes to pitching, few teams are more stacked than the Washington Nationals, who boast an equal, if not stronger, arsenal of young arms.

The Nationals will send right-handers Stephen Strasburg and Taylor Jordan to the mound against the Braves this weekend, both of whom had strong springs and will look to deliver a series win for their team. As of Thursday night, the Nationals have yet to announce who the starter will be for today’s game. But if Jordan Zimmermann has recovered from the flu-like symptoms that caused him to miss his start against the Mets on Thursday, the Nationals will be throwing two of their ‘big three’ at their division foes.

Regardless of who pitches today’s game, the combination of stellar rotations and otherworldly bullpens on both teams promises to make this a low-scoring series, even for a Nationals offense that is coming off a 22-run series against the Mets.

While every game between the Nationals and the Braves has its fair share of excitement, there’s no doubt that the must-see game of the weekend will be Saturday night, when Strasburg and Teheran will battle it out in a battle of the aces that promises to be electric from beginning to end.

After six long months of talking about how heated the battle will be between these two clubs, the race for the division title is finally about to start. And even though it’s still early April, this is a huge series for both teams and a must-watch for fans from both cities.

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