KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) — Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman were walking back to the Atlanta clubhouse, having finished up a stint in the batting cages on a rainy morning, when they spotted Bryce Harper sitting at the end of the Washington dugout.
They went over to shake hands and chat for a few minutes, their first chance to catch up with the Nationals young star this season.
It won’t be the last time they meet.
This has all the makings of a great baseball rivalry: two youthful teams in the same division, both poised for long-term success but likely to be in each other’s way.
“You definitely know what’s across the table,” said Uggla, the Braves’ second baseman, before the teams met in a spring training game Tuesday.
Last year, they battled all season for the NL East title, the Nationals leading most of the way with the Braves in hot pursuit. Washington finished with a league-leading 98 wins — four games ahead of Atlanta, though both made the playoffs.
After each lost to St. Louis in the postseason (the Braves in a disputed one-game playoff, the Nationals in a bitter division series), they began making moves with an eye on a longer October run, ever mindful of what their division rival was up to.
The Braves signed B.J. Upton and traded for his younger brother, Justin, to give their offense a much needed boost from the right side of the plate. The Nationals traded for a true leadoff hitter, Denard Span, and signed closer Rafael Soriano, adding to a team that already includes two of baseball’s brightest young players, Harper and pitcher Stephen Strasburg.
“You’ve got to prepare,” Uggla said. “If they make a move, you’ve constantly got to do what it takes to be competitive. I feel like we did that this year.”
Davey Johnson is also impressed with Atlanta’s offseason moves, believing the Braves addressed their major weakness from the last few seasons — a lineup that was heavy on lefties.
That said, the Washington manager made it clear what his team’s mindset will be.
World Series or bust.
“We’ve already won a (division) pennant. We’ve been in the postseason,” Johnson said. “With that experience and the talent level that’s here, our goals should be higher. There’s no sense romancing anybody and telling you, ‘Geez, we’d be lucky to win our division, we’d be lucky to go far in the playoffs.’ … But I don’t think I’m telling these players anything they don’t believe themselves.”
While having two wild cards in each league has taken some of the luster off division races, the Braves found out how important it is to finish first — especially with a one-game opening round.
The Braves had home-field advantage against the Cardinals, but shoddy defense and a much-debated infield fly call sent Atlanta to a 6-3 loss.
Just like that, the season was over.
Washington’s year was stretched out a little longer, but the ending was even more painful. In the decisive Game 5 against the Cardinals, the Nationals jumped out to a 6-0 lead through three innings and were still up 7-5 heading to the ninth. Drew Storen was within one out of closing out the series, but a pair of two-out, two-run singles gave St. Louis a stunning 9-7 win.
Not surprisingly, one of the moves Washington made in the offseason was signing Soriano, who had 42 saves for the New York Yankees filling in for the injured Mariano Rivera. The Nationals plan to use their new addition in the ninth inning, with former closers Storen and Tyler Clippard handling duties in the seventh and eighth.
The acquisition of Span provides a true leadoff hitter, which was lacking in 2012. Finally, the Nationals filled a hole in their rotation by picking up Dan Haren, who battled injuries but still won 12 games with the Angels, adding a veteran presence to a young rotation that includes 20-game winner Gio Gonzalez.
“We have confidence and have shown what we can do,” second baseman Danny Espinosa said. “Now, we’ve just got to keep rolling with it.”
The Braves had a major hole to fill after Chipper Jones retired, but general manager Frank Wren moved boldly to make up what was lost — and then some. He signed B.J. Upton to a five-year, $75.25 million contract (essentially the same money Jones was getting), then pulled off a seven-player deal with Arizona to land B.J.’s younger brother.
Now, Atlanta has a much more balanced lineup, with the Uptons joining Uggla and Andrelton Simmons from the right side, while Freeman, Jason Heyward and Brian McCann should provide plenty of the left-handed power.
“They were a very talented team to start with, but they definitely made some good offseason acquisitions,” Espinosa said. “It’s always fun playing them. They’ve got a good group of guys over there. They play hard. They play the right way.”
The Braves are looking to have more head-to-head success against Washington, going 8-10 in the season series last year — and needing a three-game sweep in their final meeting to make it that close.
“They’ve been on point,” Uggla said. “You could gradually see them over the years getting better and better and better. Then, once you saw all the moves they made between 2011 and 2012, I was like, ‘Man, these guys are going to be for real.’ I wasn’t at all surprised at how good they were.”
The most impressive thing about both teams is their youth.
Uggla is the only Atlanta regular older than 30, while the Nationals have a couple of 30-somethings, Adam LaRoche and Jason Werth. Most of the Braves’ top pitchers — closer Craig Kimbrel, expected opening day starter Kris Medlen — are in their 20s. Ditto for the Nationals, whose lone starter over 30 is the newcomer Haren.
Of course, most of the focus in Washington is on Harper, who’s all of 20, and the 24-year-old Strasburg, who doesn’t have to worry about getting shut down before the playoffs this season.
“If we all stay together, continue to play well, stay injury-free, continue to improve, this team could be a real good team for a real long time,” Espinosa said. “I think a lot of us want to stay here and see how good this team can be.”
Ditto for the Braves.
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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press