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February 27, 2013

Nationals-Braves has all the makings of a great rivalry

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman were walking back to the Atlanta clubhouse, having finishing up a stint in the batting cages on a rainy morning, when they spotted Bryce Harper sitting at the end of the Washington dugout.

They went over to shake hands and chat for a few minutes, their first chance to catch up with the Nationals young star this season.

It won’t be the last time they meet.

This has all the makings of a great baseball rivalry: two youthful teams in the same division, both poised for long-term success but likely to be in each other’s way.

“You definitely know what’s across the table,” said Uggla, the Braves’ second baseman, before the teams met in a spring training game Tuesday.

Last year, they battled all season for the NL East title, the Nationals leading most of the way with the Braves in hot pursuit. Washington finished with a league-leading 98 wins — four games ahead of Atlanta, though both made the playoffs.

After each lost to St. Louis in the postseason (the Braves in a disputed one-game playoff, the Nationals in a bitter division series), they began making moves with an eye on a longer October run, ever mindful of what their division rival was up to.

The Braves signed B.J. Upton and traded for his younger brother, Justin, to give their offense a much needed boost from the right side of the plate. The Nationals traded for a true leadoff hitter, Denard Span, and signed closer Rafael Soriano, adding to a team that already includes two of baseball’s brightest young players, Harper and pitcher Stephen Strasburg.

“You’ve got to prepare,” Uggla said. “If they make a move, you’ve constantly got to do what it takes to be competitive. I feel like we did that this year.”

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