Rotation key to regaining dominance
Hudson, Glavine and Smoltz need to be consistent for Braves
Wherever the season begins, Opening Day is special. But when the Braves start this season on Opening Night in the nation's capital at the Nationals' new stadium with an audience watching on ESPN, there will likely be a buzz that is greater than normal.
All of these elements will be present when the Braves open this season on Sunday night against the Nationals. There to celebrate the historical opening of the new stadium will be President George W. Bush, who will throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
"It will be cool to have the President there to throw out the first pitch, because I voted for him twice and I'd vote for him again if I could," Braves left fielder Matt Diaz said. "But seriously, it's just going to be fun to be there to open the sesaon."
While a majority vote will determine who will replace Bush when his term comes to an end, the Braves will be spending the next six months looking to play their way back to the dominance that they once owned in the National League East. Having gone two consecutive seasons without a division title, they're entering this season confident that they can regain their division supremacy.
"Not only do we have the team to make the playoffs, but we also have the pitching to go deep into the playoffs," Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur said. "We haven't always had that."
If the Braves are going to advance to the postseason and make some noise in October, they will need consistency out of a rotation that gained depth with the offseason return of Tom Glavine. But Glavine's reunion with his good friend John Smoltz won't be celebratory unless Tim Hudson proves to be the ace the Braves envision.
Hudson will be pitted against Odalis Perez in this season opener against the Nationals. This is will be Hudson's fifth career Opening Day start and second since joining the Braves before the start of the 2005 season.
While the Braves understand the great importance of Hudson, Glavine and Smoltz providing the base for a solid starting rotation, they also know that they have the potential to have a very potent offense.
With the powerful switch-hitting combo of Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira once again solidifying the middle of the lineup, there is a potential to score a lot of runs. But the offense's strength won't be maximized unless leadoff hitter Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar capably handle the top two spots in the order.
With two-time All-Star Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur still maturing, the lineup has a chance to be strong from top to bottom.
"I compare this lineup to the ones I had in Texas my first three seasons, when anybody hitting first through seventh in our lineup could hit 20 home runs," said Teixeira, who had 56 RBIs in the 54 games he played after being acquired by the Braves at last year's trade deadline. "The pitcher couldn't relax the whole time. That's the kind of lineup we have here."
While Teixeira will be looking to replace some of the power Andruw Jones previously supplied over the past decade, Mark Kotsay will be looking to make sure Jones' glove isn't missed too much. Kotsay, who was acquired from the A's in January, hasn't had any problems with his back and if he stays healthy, the Braves believe he'll be a solid defender, who can also make regular offensive contributions.
"He's as fundamentally sound as any outfielder you'll see," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "We're certainly happy to have him."
Chipper Jones, Smoltz and Glavine have all experienced the glory of winning a world championship in Atlanta.
As he enters what could be his final season with the Braves, Teixeira believes he is surrounded by a team that could allow him to satisfy his hunger to celebrate a World Series title.
"We all have the same goals," Teixeira said. "We have veterans that want to win again and we have young guys who want to win for the first time. We're all on the same page."
ATL: RHP Tim Hudson (16-10, 3.33 ERA in 2007)
Hudson is 5-1 with a 1.09 ERA in eight career starts against the Nationals/Expos.
WAS: LHP Odalis Perez (8-11, 5.57 ERA in 2007)
Perez made his Major League debut with the Braves in 1998, and remained in the organization until being included in the trade that brought Gary Sheffield from the Dodgers before the start of the 2002 season.
Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman hit just .200 (14-for-70) last year against the Braves and owns just two hits in 13 at-bats against Hudson. But he did homer three times against the Braves during his 2006 rookie season.
640 AM WGST and 94.9 The Bull
Monday: Pirates (Ian Snell, 9-12, 3.76) at Braves (Tom Glavine, 13-8, 4.45), 7:10 p.m. ET
Wednesday: Pirates (Tom Gorzelanny, 14-10, 3.88) at Braves (Jair Jurrjens, 3-1, 4.70), 7:10 p.m. ET
Thursday: Pirates (Paul Maholm, 10-15, 5.02) at Braves (Mike Hampton, hasn't pitched since 2005), 7:10 p.m. ET
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.