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Atlanta Braves Opening Day 2011: Braves Travel To Nationals To Begin Season

Baseball is officially back. The Atlanta Braves open the 2011 season on the road with a three-game series against the Washington Nationals.

The Nationals finished the 2010 season with a 69-93 record. Adam Dunn led the offense with 38 home runs and 103 RBI, including a .536 SLG. Ryan Zimmerman was right behind with a .899 OPS and 25 home runs. However, the pitching staff was atrocious, as only two starters posted over 20 starts, and the next highest innings total behind Livan Hernandez's 211.2 was John Lannan at 143.1. Only one starter with at least 15 starts had an ERA under four, and only one other starter had an ERA under five.

The Nationals are throwing a similar rotation at opponents this season, featuring the usuals Hernandez and Lannan. Jordan Zimmermann is looking to return from injury and have a solid season, and the Nationals are banking on it with him penciled in third in the rotation. Cheap pickups Jason Marquis and Tom Gorzelanny round out the rotation for Washington. Of course, the big hole is due to Stephen Strasburg's elbow surgery.

The offense figures to be somewhat of a strength for the Nationals, due in large part to the addition of Jayson Werth. However, they are replacing Dunn's production with a frail Adam LaRoche, and they are counting on Rick Ankiel in center field. The top of the order is promising for the Nationals, but it fades rather quickly.

Quick primer on pitching stats to be used this season (Visit this for full glossary):
(Innings pitched, ERA, Fielding Independent Pitching, Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, Walks Per 9, Strikeouts Per 9, Groundball Percentage, Swinging Strike Percentage)
(Percentage of pitch use: FB=fastball, SL=slider, CH=changeup, CT=cutter, CB=curve, SF=splitter; Swing Percentage By Opposing Batters, Contact Percentage By Opposing Batters)

Thursday, March 31 - 1:05 (SportSouth)
Derek Lowe (193.2 IP, 4.00 ERA, 3.89 FIP, 3.54 xFIP, 2.83 BB/9, 6.32 K/9, 58.8 GB%, 8.2 SwStr%)
(63.9 FB%, 16.1 SL%, 15.5 CH%, 4.5 CT%; 43.6 Swing%, 80.3 Contact%)
vs.
Livan Hernandez (211.2 IP, 3.66 ERA, 3.95 FIP, 4.57 xFIP, 2.72 BB/9, 4.85 K/9, 39.3 GB%, 4.6 SwStr%)
(61.4 FB%, 20.3 SL%, 10.9 CB%, 7.4 CH%; 40.6 Swing%, 88.2 Contact%)

The Opening Day matchup features two veterans who know how to pitch to their advantage. Lowe progressed as the season wore on last year, and four runs allowed in the entire month of September capped a solid second half. One of the big reasons for this success was more sliders, as he backed off the sinker a bit and pitched backward more often. It's worth watching to see how much he takes from this in his first start and whether it is a sign of things to come in 2011.

Hernandez is a well-traveled pitcher who does nothing spectacular, but he manages to post sub-four ERA's with consistency. He pitches to contact, has a miniscule strikeout rate, does not induce fly balls and yet he keeps the ball in the park for the most part while giving the Nationals a ton of innings, which is crucial for this staff. Hitting his offspeed and breaking stuff is always key.

Saturday, April 2 - 1:05 (SportSouth)
Tommy Hanson (202.2 IP, 3.33 ERA, 3.31 FIP, 3.87 xFIP, 2.49 BB/9, 7.68 K/9, 41.8 GB%, 8.4 SwStr%)
(57 FB%, 28 SL%, 12.3 CB%, 2.7 CH%; 45.4 Swing%, 80.9 Contact%)
vs.
John Lannan (143.1 IP, 4.65 ERA, 4.47 FIP, 4.36 xFIP, 3.08 BB/9, 4.46 K/9, 51.5 GB%, 5.5 SwStr%)
(65.1 FB%, 17.1 CH%, 9.3 SL%, 8.5 CB%; 44.4 Swing%, 87.5 Contact%)

Hanson is the proverbial ace-in-waiting, but he still has to clear a hurdle in 2011: durability. His velocity and sharpness declined as the season progressed last year, and as he reaches his peak stage, it's about time to start seeing him blow through 200 innings with a little more ease. Hanson's breaking stuff was very sharp in spring camp and look for it to continue as the season begins.

Lannan was knocked around a good bit last season, seeing an increase in line drives to 21%. His rates remained pretty similar, but he just threw more hittable pitches. While his contact percentage actually went down, his outside contact increased, due in large part to his slider getting crushed. If he just continues on the path he set last year, throwing fewer breaking pitches and more fastball/changeup combinations, he should fare better this season. Look for the Braves to try to jump on the breaking stuff.

Sunday, April 3 - 1:35 (Fox Sports South)
Tim Hudson (228.2 IP, 2.83 ERA, 4.09 FIP, 3.77 xFIP, 2.91 BB/9, 5.47 K/9, 64.1 GB%, 6.8 SwStr%)
(63.8 FB%, 14.6 SL%, 6.1 CT%, 5.9 SF%, 5.5 CH%, 4.2 CB%; 45.3 Swing%, 83.9 Contact%)
vs.
Jordan Zimmermann (31 IP, 4.94 ERA, 5.85 FIP, 3.92 xFIP, 2.9 BB/9, 7.84 K/9, 48.9 GB%, 5.2 SwStr%)
(65 FB%, 20.9 CB%, 10.8 SL%, 3.3 CH%; 43 Swing%, 87.5 Contact%)

Hudson's offseason has been filled with doubters due to his 2.83 ERA last season, some of which may not have been deserved, but so much was due to a 64.1 GB%. Many will automatically look at the difference between ERA and FIP and discredit his season, but watching all of his starts may change your opinion some. One area of concern is the 228 innings he threw was his most since 2003, and at 35 years old this year, he may not have many of those type seasons again. Still, look for more top of the rotation type stuff this year.

Zimmermann's 31 innings last season should not be looked at very closely due to it being his return from Tommy John surgery. The Nationals have high hopes as Zimmermann returns to full health and a third spot in the rotation, but only time will tell how the surgery affects his command. He has always been a solid control pitcher, but he doesn't miss many bats with his stuff, and he relies on command to keep the ball in the park. Zimmermann is a fastball/slider pitcher who goes to the curve in spots, while the changeup is show-me.

The Nationals bullpen remains a strength, though it does get overused at times due to the weak rotation. Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard are valuable back-end relievers. Sean Burnett is a great option as LOOGY.

Projected Nationals Lineup:
1. Ian Desmond, SS
2. Jayson Werth, RF
3. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
4. Adam LaRoche, 1B
5. Michael Morse, LF
6. Rick Ankiel, CF
7. Danny Espinosa, 2B
8. Ivan Rodriguez, C

Getting around the top three of Ian Desmond, Werth and Zimmerman should be the gameplan for the Braves. LaRoche and Michael Morse are decent power threats with little on-base ability. Ankiel is a pretty big hole. Espinosa is a switch-hitting rookie that has flashed power potential from the second base spot, but he will likely go through the usual rookie struggles.

For more on the series, Braves fans should visit Talking Chop, and Nationals fans should visit Federal Baseball.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.