While New York Mets catcher Travis d'Arnaud, left, waits for the ball, Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper slides safely home during the seventh inning of the baseball game at Citi Field, Thursday, April 3, 2014 in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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Seth Wenig

While New York Mets catcher Travis d'Arnaud, left, waits for the ball, Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper slides safely home during the seventh inning of the baseball game at Citi Field, Thursday, April 3, 2014 in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Braves, Nationals set for rivalry series

By Howard Fendrich

Associated Press

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WASHINGTON – Bryce Harper’s Washington Nationals and Jason Heyward’s Atlanta Braves won the past two NL East titles, and they’ll start the division race early this season.

Half of each team’s first 12 games come against the other, beginning tonight with Washington’s home opener.

“I really wouldn’t say we’re rivals, as much as just two good teams,” Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons said. “But it means a little more when we play them. We respect them, and I think they respect us.”

The Nationals led the majors with 98 wins in 2012, but they finished 10 games behind the Braves in the division in 2013.

Two major problems for the Nationals a year ago were a poor start and an inability to beat the Braves, who won the clubs’ season series, 13-6. After their three-game series this weekend, the teams play three more at Atlanta a week later. But then they won’t face off again until June.

“Obviously, there’s a history with us and the Braves with what happened last year, but it’s a new year,” Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard said.

“Once the season starts, any time you play an inter-division team, you want to win those games,” Clippard said. “If you’re playing well within your division, you’re going to have a better opportunity to win your division. ... When Atlanta comes to town, we’ll be looking forward to beating up on them a little bit.”

The Nationals are 3-0 after sweeping a series at the New York Mets, capped by an 8-2 victory Thursday. That finale was supposed to be started for Washington by right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, a 19-game winner last season, but he developed a fever overnight and was throwing up. So Zimmermann was replaced Thursday by Tanner Roark, who had been scheduled to start tonight against the Braves.

Early as it is in his first season as a manager, Williams already has faced plenty of key decisions and adjustments.

Right-hander Doug Fister was acquired via offseason trade from Detroit to be the No. 4 starter – and, therefore, on the mound tonight – but he is on the disabled list with a strained muscle on the right side of his upper back.

Catcher Wilson Ramos, the cleanup hitter on opening day, is expected miss at least a month after having surgery Wednesday for a broken bone in his left hand. Left fielder Harper had a scary collision in Game 1 and said he passed concussion tests.

The Braves, who went 2-1 in their opening series at the Milwaukee Brewers, have their own problems, particularly when it comes to pitchers.

Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy got season-ending elbow injuries. Mike Minor (returning from a sore shoulder), Gavin Floyd (coming off 2013 elbow surgery) and Ervin Santana (a late free-agent signing) are prepping in the minors. David Hale is scheduled to make his sixth career start tonight.

“We got off to a good start against the Nationals last year, and we want to do it again,” Braves outfielder Heyward said. “We know they’re a good team and I think they feel the same about us. Nothing has really changed. We’ve had some great games and I’m sure we will again this year. It’s always exiting when we play them.”

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