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Chipper Jones reminisces about past Opening Days

Nationals fans clearly remember the last time their club opened up against the Braves in Washington.

How can they not?

It was March 30, 2008, a date that not only marked the start of a new season, but the opening of a new home for the Nats, who kicked off their tenure at Nationals Park in fitting fashion -- with a walk-off homer by franchise face Ryan Zimmerman.

Almost three years to the day, a lot has changed -- and yet so much has remained the same.

When the Nationals and Braves open up from the nation's capital on Friday, Zimmerman will still be there. So will third-base counterpart Chipper Jones, who begins his 16th season after retirement seemed so possible eight months ago.

The managers, though, are different. Jim Riggleman starts his second full season at the helm for the Nationals, and a new man will be at the controls in Atlanta for the first time in 21 years, as Fredi Gonzalez begins his quest to fill really big shoes.

Finally, baseball -- real, meaningful baseball -- is upon these two division rivals.

On this day, the Braves' elimination by the eventual World Series champs in last year's National League Division Series is forgotten, and the Nationals' memories of a third consecutive season looking up in the NL East are no more.

This is the day Dan Uggla and Jayson Werth ceremoniously begin fresh starts with new clubs.

The day Derek Lowe and Livan Hernandez try to set the tone.

And -- for the first time since 1990 -- the day Bobby Cox merely sits back to watch the man he groomed.

"If you spent four years with Picasso," Gonzalez said earlier this spring, "you better have learned."

Gonzalez, dismissed by the Marlins after 3 1/2 seasons on June 23, got a golden opportunity this offseason to manage near his offseason home, take over for his mentor and guide one of the most talented clubs in baseball.

Braves catcher Brian McCann, entering his seventh year, was asked if this was the best team -- on paper -- he ever played for.

The lefty slugger gave a very quick "yes."

"We won 91 games last year and we got better," McCann said. "Now we're back, guys have more experience under their belt. I mean, we feel like we're a good club, and now we just have to go out and prove it."

It's time to do so.

In hopes of making the playoffs for a second successive year, the Braves added arguably the best power-hitting second baseman in baseball to an offense that led the NL in on-base percentage in 2010. Uggla joins a lineup with McCann, budding star Jason Heyward, standout rookie Freddie Freeman and a seemingly rejuvenated Jones.

On the other side, the Nats' mentality is simple -- they're sick of losing.

After finishing fifth in their division every season since 2008, they essentially swapped Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham for Werth and Adam LaRoche.

Somehow -- without Stephen Strasburg for most of the year -- the Nationals need to pitch better, they need more production out of the top of their order and they have to play better defense, an area they feel is vastly improved.

Somehow, Riggleman -- whose 2012 option has yet to be picked up -- needs to bring it all together.

"This is a precious job, so I want to keep the job," he said. "So, I have to win. Ultimately, that's what things come down to -- wins and losses."

For as much as they want to win, though, the Nationals realize this is an ongoing process in D.C. Come September, a true glimpse of this team's future may be on display, if Strasburg is healthy, Bryce Harper is up and Drew Storen is comfortable closing.

"I think we made the right changes," Storen said at the start of camp. "We not only brought in guys with good talent, but we have guys with the right attitude and who want to win. They just don't want to show up and put their gloves out there. I think that is the biggest thing."

Braves: Rejuvenated Chipper ready to roll
After a torn ACL in August ended his season, and nearly his career, the 38-year-old Jones looked healthy as ever while bashing Grapefruit League pitching this spring and looks primed for a bounce-back year.

"Chipper looks phenomenal," said Lowe, making his sixth Opening Day start in the past seven years. "It doesn't look like he's at all hampered by anything."

All the talk in the NL East this offseason circled around the Phillies' pitching staff -- and rightfully so -- but the Braves' rotation of Lowe, Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson and Brandon Beachy can compete with anybody's. Though Atlanta lost premier closer Billy Wagner to retirement, many believe Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel are ready to handle the late-inning burden.

And many will call the Braves the most well-rounded team in baseball.

"We all know it," Jones said. "We just have to continue to stay healthy."

Nationals: No doubt about Livan
In hopes of starting the season off right, Hernandez -- the 36-year-old in his 16th season -- will toe the rubber, relying very little on velocity and very much on smarts. In some way, Hernandez still gets it done. Last year, he notched a 2.35 ERA in five outings against the Braves and posted a 3.66 ERA while making 33 starts and pitching 211 2/3 innings.

Riggleman's decision to give him the ball was an easy one, and it was decided early.

"Not only did he have a good year, but he is also a composed veteran guy," Riggleman, whose club went 10-8 against the Braves in 2010, said in mid-February. "With the whole atmosphere of Opening Day, he is able to slow the game down and not be overwhelmed by it."

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