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New-look Braves take a bold first step

The definitely new and possibly improved Atlanta Braves took their first step Monday night on what will be a six-month journey of discovery. Will a remade lineup power this team to its first division title since 2005? Will these Braves whiff their way to a season of strikeouts by the historic boatload? Could they somehow contrive to do both?

The festive evening commenced with Chipper Jones, once a Brave of note, throwing the ceremonial first pitch to Brian McCann, who hopes again to be a Brave of note. This Chipper delivery was more accurate than the ball he sailed into right field on that double-play grounder in the wretched wild-card loss last October, a bitter memory the sardonic Chipper raised himself.

“I miss it today,” Jones said of playing baseball. “But tomorrow I won’t.”

For the record, Chipper likes the look of the first Chipper-less Braves since 1994. “I’m as excited as all the rest of the fans,” he said, but part of being Chipper Jones is never getting giddy. So he attached a big fat caveat.

“I think a little deeper about things,” Jones said. “I’m worried about things like strikeouts and on-base percentage. This game revolves around the long ball, but you’re not going to outslug people in postseason. When (the 2013 Braves are) good, they’re going to look really good. They’re going to win some games 15-0. But there are a lot of good starting pitchers in our division.”

A few minutes earlier, Charlie Manuel had sounded a similar note in the visiting dugout. Asked about the Braves, the Philadelphia manager said: “They’ve got power and speed. On certain days they’re going to score a lot of runs. They’ve got an outfield that can go get the ball. They’ve got a big-time bullpen and one of the best closers you’ll ever see.”

Then Manuel offered up the same caveat: “They’ve got some guys who are going to strike out sometimes. Good pitchers might give them problems. Against guys who are mediocre or finesse pitchers, they might score a lot of runs.”

The Phillies’ starting pitcher this night was Cole Hamels, certifiably no mediocrity. The Braves hammered him for four runs in the first three innings and the newly imported Uptons weren’t the wreakers of early havoc. Freddie Freeman (two-run homer, RBI single) and his winter workout partner, Dan Uggla (homer), were the ones cuffing Hamels around and in April, aren’t pitchers supposed to be ahead of the hitters?

The Braves led 4-0 after three innings, whereupon Tim Hudson nearly gave it all back. He was gone in the fifth, having seen the Phillies draw within 4-3. Luis Avilan inherited a mess but tidied up, striking out Ryan Howard and inducing an inning-ending grounder from Domonic Brown. Then it was an Upton’s turn, Justin crushing a Hamels pitch far over the wall in left-center to make it 5-3.

Hudson’s early departure lent resonance to another Chipper observation. “You’re not going to be successful if your starting pitchers can’t get the game to your bullpen,” he’d said, and the perceived difference in rotations is the chief reason the Braves are being picked to run second to Washington in the National League East. The Braves’ starters are good; the Nationals’ are great.

Asked his choice to the win the East, Jones said: “I would pick the Nationals. That’s just me looking at it objectively. And I’d say it’s a coin flip between the Phillies and the Braves for second.”

Really? Aren’t these the over-the-hill Phils? Jones again: “I think Philadelphia is going to be heard from. There’s a lot of pride over there, a lot of experience.”

There are a select few who believe the Phillies have one big year left in them. Chase Utley and Howard had strong springs — they had four RBI’s between them Monday night — and Hamels and Cliff Lee remain bona fide No. 1 starters. (Roy Halladay, by way of contrast, appears to be aging fast.) Manuel, who’s not one for false chatter, said Monday he felt this was the best training camp his team has ever had.

Then, presumably with a nod toward the Nationals and perhaps the Braves, Manuel said: “Just because you’ve got a lot of talent doesn’t mean you’re going to win anything.”

No, it doesn’t. But in baseball as in all sports, talent is generally the place to start. The 2013 Braves are the most gifted bunch we’ve seen around here in a decade. They mightn’t win the division, but they should run a strong second to the Nats. In winning their opener 7-5 and making a very good pitcher look bad, the Braves handed us a heads-up. This could be one heck of a year.

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