A new ballpark has the Washington Nationals thinking a bright future lies ahead.
The Atlanta Braves can't afford to look past the present.
An aging Braves squad with a win-now mentality is the opponent for the young Nationals as they debut their new home to a national television audience Sunday night in Major League Baseball's stateside season opener.
Though Boston and Oakland faced each other in Japan on Tuesday and Wednesday, those games were played very early in the morning on U.S. time so this matchup is the first chance for many baseball fans to welcome the regular season.
The highlight for many will be getting a glimpse of Nationals Park after the franchise, formerly the Montreal Expos, spent its first two seasons in the nation's capital playing at run-down RFK Stadium.
"We thank D.C. for making it happen," Nationals right-hander Jason Bergmann said, "because RFK was wearing on everybody."
The 41,888-seat venue, located along the Anacostia River, includes state-of-the-art facilities and views of D.C. landmarks like the Capitol and the Washington Monument. President Bush will throw out the first pitch on Sunday night at the $600 million stadium.
"I'm sure it's going to be abuzz," Nationals catcher Paul Lo Duca said. "It's going to be loud in here. A lot of the guys, including myself, are looking forward to it."
Lo Duca was among another array of inexpensive offseason acquisitions made by a franchise which made its only playoff appearance in 1981. Team management, though, may finally be ready to spend money on free agents and long-term contracts in the coming years due to the new revenue Nationals Park should generate.
"Obviously, our ballpark attendance is going to start going way up," general manager Jim Bowden said. "And, as revenue goes up, so does payroll go up. They go hand in hand. And No. 2, when the players come and see the ballpark and they walk in there, they're going to want to play there."
While the Nationals (73-89) currently must count on youngsters like Bergmann, Ryan Zimmerman and Lastings Milledge, the Braves (84-78) are unlikely to have much success unless their older veterans produce.
The staff's top four starters average more than 37 years of age, star third baseman Chipper Jones is 35 and Mark Kotsay is 32 as he takes over in center field for longtime standout Andruw Jones.
Besides 32-year-old opening day starter Tim Hudson (16-10, 3.33 ERA), Atlanta's rotation includes John Smoltz and Tom Glavine along with 35-year-old Mike Hampton.
"The health of our 40-somethings, the health of Hampton, those were all big question marks coming into the (2007) season," Chipper Jones said. "If they're not healthy, we're going to really struggle again, but if they are and give us quality innings then we're going to be very competitive."
While Smoltz, 40, starts the season on the disabled list, Glavine returns to the Braves after five seasons with the New York Mets. The left-hander is 42 but must be reliable because it's unclear what Hampton, having missed the last two seasons with elbow problems, or rookie Jair Jurrjens can provide at the back of the rotation.
"We don't know how long Smoltz and Glavine are going to be around," Jones said. "Hopefully I'll be here for a couple more years. But it's important that we instill the way it's been here for a long time with these young kids and get back to a competitive level at the top of the National League East and with a move here or there be able to contend for a championship."
The Braves finished third in the NL East in 2007 despite a strong season from Jones, who hit .337 with 29 homers and 102 RBIs. He'll be surrounded in the lineup by some talented youngsters - All-Star catcher Brian McCann, outfielder Jeff Francoeur and 2007 trade deadline acquisition Mark Teixeira.
That lineup could help the Braves avoid a third straight season without a division title after winning 14 in a row, but the biggest key is likely to be the rotation.
Hudson had a strong 2007 after fairly pedestrian seasons in his first two years with Atlanta. The right-hander's wins and ERA totals were his best since 2003 with Oakland and he allowed just 10 home runs while pitching 224 1-3 innings, third-most in the NL.
He could be primed for another solid year after going 2-0 with a 1.47 ERA in five spring starts.
"I feel pretty confident with just about everything," said Hudson, who won all four of his starts against the Nationals last season as he allowed just two runs in 30 innings.
Those numbers came against a Washington offense which finished the season with a major league-worst 673 runs and tied for 27th with 123 homers.
Offseason acquisitions Milledge and Elijah Dukes along with Wily Mo Pena - who is on the DL - hope to help turn around those struggles as they get their first shots to be lineup regulars.
"We need any help we can get on offense," Nationals manager Manny Acta said. "Obviously, with the amount of runs we scored last year, we need everyone in our lineup to have a good year."
That's particularly true because the rotation looks weak, with unproven youngsters Bergmann, Shawn Hill and Matt Chico joining veterans Tim Redding and Odalis Perez.
It will be Perez (8-11, 5.57) who gets to throw the first regular-season pitch in the Nationals' new home as he makes the first opening day start of his career. He spent the past year and a half with Kansas City before Washington signed him in February.
Perez improved during the second half of last season, going 5-4 with a 4.87 ERA in his final 12 starts, before missing the last six weeks with a strained left knee. He's 0-3 with a 6.30 ERA in six appearances versus the Braves since winning his first start against them on May 8, 2002.
The left-hander, who broke into the majors with Atlanta in 1998, had a respectable spring as he posted a 4.96 ERA while walking three and striking out 12 in 16 1-3 innings.
"What Manny has put in my hands is a lot of responsibility because of the new stadium," Perez told the team's official Web site. "I know they did good last year, but this year is a different team and I know we can do better."
Re: Braves-Nationals Preview
ATLANTA (84 - 78) at WASHINGTON (73 - 89)
TIM HUDSON (R) vs. ODALIS PEREZ (L)
Top Trends for this game.
ATLANTA is 114-117 (-26.7 Units) against the money line in night games over the last 3 seasons.
WASHINGTON is 73-89 (+15.2 Units) against the money line in all games over the last 2 seasons.
WASHINGTON is 70-86 (+11.2 Units) against the money line in games played on a grass field over the last 2 seasons.
HUDSON is 185-104 (+39.8 Units) against the money line in all games since 1997. (Team's Record)
HUDSON is 174-94 (+43.0 Units) against the money line in games played on a grass field since 1997. (Team's Record)
WASHINGTON is 9-36 (-21.8 Units) against the money line when the total is 8 to 8.5 over the last 2 seasons.
WASHINGTON is 5-22 (-16.5 Units) against the money line at home when the total is 8 to 8.5 over the last 2 seasons.
PEREZ is 3-11 (-11.4 Units) against the money line in home games when playing on Sunday since 1997. (Team's Record)
Head-to-Head Series History
There were no past matchups in this series during this time period.
TIM HUDSON vs. WASHINGTON since 1997
HUDSON is 5-1 when starting against WASHINGTON with an ERA of 1.09 and a WHIP of 0.936.
His team's record is 6-2 (+2.2 units) in these starts. The OVER is 3-5. (-2.6 units)
ODALIS PEREZ vs. ATLANTA since 1997
PEREZ is 1-3 when starting against ATLANTA with an ERA of 5.40 and a WHIP of 1.371.
His team's record is 2-4 (-2.2 units) in these starts. The UNDER is 3-2. (+0.9 units)
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