Braves, Nationals Bring Contrasting Expectations Into Opener

The Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals represent the extremes of the 2016 NL East.

Max Scherzer, who pitched a no-hitter in his last start of 2015, starts for Washington in Monday's opener against Julio Teheran, a rare holdover on the rebuilding Braves.

The Nationals and defending NL champion Mets appear to be the division powers. Most observers expect the Braves and Phillies to compete for last and rank among the worst teams in the majors.

The Nationals' focus is on winning now. Manager Dusty Baker was hired to massage a talented roster that includes 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper.

Shortstop Danny Espinosa said Baker has brought an upbeat spirit to the team.

"I feel like it's a pretty good clubhouse to be in,'' Espinosa said. "It's a lot of fun. It seems like a real good, positive attitude and lightened mood. That starts with the manager. Our manager has done a real good job of keeping everyone light and keeping everyone having fun and keeping it loose.''

Washington looks ready for success after compiling the major leagues' best spring training record.

"I kind of sense a winning attitude,'' said outfielder Chris Heisey. "We kind of are starting to expect to win. I know it's spring training, but when you win as much as we did, you kind of start to realize how much you like that and you want to continue to do it.''

The Braves' focus is on 2017, which will bring the opening of new SunTrust Park and the expected first wave of prospects. For their final season at Turner Field, first baseman Freddie Freeman and Teheran are the only notable players left from the 2013 team that won 96 games and the division.

For all the talk of such prospects as infielders Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies, pitchers Sean Newcomb and Aaron Blair and outfielder Mallex Smith, the Braves' roster includes 14 players who are 30 or older, many serving as bridges to the future.

The Braves added veterans Jeff Francoeur and Drew Stubbs to the outfield and left-hander Eric O'Flaherty to the bullpen.

John Schuerholz, who as general manager helped build the Braves teams that won 14 straight division titles and the 1995 World Series championship, announced last week he is moving from team president to an advisory role as vice chairman. Schuerholz, 75, says he is looking forward to the Braves again becoming contenders - but he recognizes that will take time.

"We've gone from one of the worst farm systems in our league in a snap of fingers to one of the best,'' Schuerholz said.

"I want to be around to see this, you're absolutely right. This is going to be a lot of fun around this organization and in this community watching Braves baseball for many, many years to come. Once the young guys begin to matriculate to the major leagues and take their place on this roster and become stars of this team ... it's going to be a very exciting time. I hope I can stay around for as long as possible to enjoy that.''

Teheran, only 25, will make his third straight opening day start. He beat Miami in last season's opener, but the Braves finished fourth in the division with only 67 wins.

"I think this year is going to be different,'' Teheran said. "I want to get a win. That's the way we want to start the year. ... I don't want to put any extra pressure on myself, just try to control what I can control and do what I can to win the game.''

The teams will be off on Tuesday. Washington's Stephen Strasburg is scheduled to face Atlanta's Bud Norris on Wednesday. 

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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