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3 to Watch: The 'Best in the East' edition

By Danny Knobler | Baseball Insider

Mike Rizzo says it's not true.

The story going around this spring was that the reason the Nationals general manager wouldn't trade any of his late-inning relievers was that he wanted to be able to match up with the Braves' strong bullpen late in games.

"No," Rizzo said this week. "We wanted to have a deep bullpen because that's how you build a championship-caliber team. We built our club around our philosophy, not because of what anyone else has."

I liked the other story better. I'd still like to think there are some in the Nationals organization who did have one eye on the Braves when they considered their options this spring.

Until the Phillies are able to prove otherwise, the Nationals and Braves are the two best teams in the National League East. It may not be far-fetched to call them the two best teams in the National League, although the Reds, Giants and a few other teams could argue the point.

What no one will argue is that Nationals-Braves games should be interesting all season.

"You want to watch," said Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth, who believes the Phillies deserve a play at the NL East big boys table. "Great players. Exciting players."

The Braves enter this weekend's series with a six-game winning streak and baseball's best record. The Nationals are just a game behind, and have a perfect 6-0 record at home.

The NL East doesn't have any one rivalry that has stood the test of time. Braves-Mets was big for a while, but so was Braves-Phillies and Phillies-Mets. Nationals-Phillies looked like it would be a big deal last year, and maybe it will be again.

But Nationals-Braves might just be the one that lasts, because these two teams could be the ones that last. They're good now, they're young, and they have good enough management that they could remain good.

They have players you want to watch. They have pitchers you want to watch. And yes, they have those deep bullpens.

"There's not going to be any dull games between us," Nats reliever Drew Storen predicted.

"They're a lot like us," Rizzo said. "Good, young and athletic."

On to 3 to Watch:

1. The Orioles and Yankees split their 18 regular-season meetings last year. They split their first four playoff games, before CC Sabathia's complete-game win over Jason Hammel in Game 5 of the Division Series. Sabathia is the starter again for their first meeting of 2013, Orioles at Yankees, Friday night (7:05 ET) at Yankee Stadium. Miguel Gonzalez, who starts for the Orioles, made three starts in New York last year (including one in the playoffs). In 20 2/3 innings in those three games, Gonzalez had 25 strikeouts and just one walk. He won both his regular-season starts, and left Game 3 of the Division Series with a 2-1 lead in the eighth (before Raul Ibanez tied the game and also won it).

2. When Blue Jays right-hander Josh Johnson was struggling Thursday against the Tigers, I said on Twitter that it was just more proof that we shouldn't believe what we see in spring training. But Jon Lester's strong first two starts for the Red Sox are proof that sometimes, spring training does give you a hint how the season could go. Lester pitched this spring as if he was headed to a comeback season, and two starts into the games that count, he's 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA. He gets David Price in his third start, in Rays at Red Sox, Saturday afternoon (1:05 ET) at Fenway Park. Price is coming off one of the worst starts of his career, a 13-0 loss to the Indians last Sunday (he allowed the first eight).

3. In the Nationals-Braves series, the opening-day starters (Tim Hudson and Stephen Strasburg) match up on Saturday. But it's the next game, Braves at Nationals, Sunday afternoon (1:05 ET) at Nationals Park, that may be even more intriguing. The Braves' Paul Maholm may get less respect than any starter on either of these teams, but he's the one guy with a 2-0 record and 0.00 ERA through two starts. His opponent Sunday is Gio Gonzalez, who has allowed just one run total in his two starts.

 
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