- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 3, 2014


Baseball, as Earl Weaver once pointed out, ain’t football. “We do this every day,” the Earl of Baltimore said, as good an explanation as there is for the perspective needed over the course of a marathon baseball season.

That said, this weekend at Nationals Park, starting Friday at the home opener when Washington faces the Atlanta Braves, is Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Duran. It’s this coming season’s Washington Redskins opener vs. the Philadelphia Eagles (bet on it).

It’s Bruno Sammartino vs. Gorilla Monsoon.

In other words, this ain’t baseball. It’s a fight.

The Braves didn’t just beat the Nationals last year for the National League East Division title. They punked them.

They pulled down their pants one day, gave them a wedgie the next. As my life coach, former Redskin and ESPN 980 host Doc Walker would say, “It was a manhood issue, buddy.”

Braves pitchers used Bryce Harper for target practice, throwing at him repeatedly, and hitting him twice in two different series. Harper had clearly irked the Braves with a slow trot around the bases in an early August series, which appeared to provoke Atlanta pitcher Julio Teheran to plunk Harper. Harper yelled at Teheran, both benches cleared, but that was the extent of it – until a few weeks later, when Harper got hit in another series in Atlanta. There was some talking and finger pointing, but little else.

Nationals outfielder and purported team leader Jayson Werth told The Washington Post after the game that it was “one of those thing we take care of in-house,” which meant, I don’t know, filling out a survey card at Applebee’s for a free sundae?

Manager Davey Johnson didn’t want his team to retaliate, for whatever reason, and that may have been the rational approach – though if this was Davey with his Mets of the 1980s, they would have had to call the cops in Atlanta before all was said and done. And no one seemed particularly willing to rush to Harper’s defense, either on the mound or from the bench.

Johnson told reporters that when reliever Luis Avilan hit Harper in the eighth inning, the second time he had been hit in the game, the umpires should have thrown him out of the game. Maybe they got into the spirit of the moment, like the Atlanta crowd did when Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez himself took Avilan out of the game, to standing ovation.

Looking for the umpires to settle this was like waiting for the teacher to come to your aid in the school yard while the class bully was beating you up.

The next day Strasburg took the mound in Atlanta, and he struggled with the desire to protect his teammates while being ordered by his manager not to retaliate – again, perhaps the rational approach. The last thing you want is someone charging the mound tackling Strasburg, resulting in an injury that would sideline your young ace who already took a beating publicly for being handled with kid gloves the year before with the dreaded shutdown

So you wound up with the debacle of Strasburg hitting Justin Upton in the first inning after Jason Heyward homered, then seemingly lost control and bizarrely threw back-to-back pitches behind Andrelton Simmons’ back. Both benches had been warned in the first inning, so Strasburg and Johnson were ejected.

If it was retribution, it got lost in the confusion that followed, as did any message that the Nationals were no longer going to put up with the Braves being their “daddy.”

The Braves went on to roll over the defending division champion Nationals by 10 games and manhandled them throughout the season, winning 13 and losing just six times.

The 2014 Braves come to Washington with damage and questions – losing two of their pitchers to injuries and the departure of the law of the team, catcher Brian McCann. Even though Atlanta is the defending NL East champions, the Nationals are the prohibitive favorite to win the division – just like last season.

The Braves will likely be the only competition the Nationals face for the top spot in the division, so of course every series is important. But this first one could set the tone for rookie manager Matt Williams, who supposedly fears no man.

You want to win this series – and, if need be, win it with attitude.

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com.

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