Braves-Nationals Preview

Even Washington Nationals opening day starter Livan Hernandez

wishes Stephen Strasburg could take that assignment Thursday.

Yes, Hernandez is proud to be pitching against Derek Lowe and

the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of 2011. He also knows that Strasburg

probably would be the guy getting that honor if not for September’s

reconstructive elbow surgery.

”He’s the No. 1 guy on the team, no doubt,” Hernandez said at

Nationals Park, where rain interrupted the home team’s workout

Wednesday and is forecast for Thursday. ”When we’ve got him on the

team, the team is much, much better. … I want to see the young

guys happy and doing something I’ve done before. He should be the

guy out there.”

In some ways, Thursday’s season opener in the nation’s capital

is as noteworthy for who won’t be there as who will be. Strasburg

will miss the game, flying back to Florida to resume his

rehabilitation work. The Braves’ manager will be Fredi Gonzalez,

not Bobby Cox, who retired after last season.

”He’s somebody that’ll be missed,” said new Nationals first

baseman Adam LaRoche, who played for Cox in Atlanta. ”Knowing

Bobby, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was sitting over there in the

dugout. We’ll wait and see what happens.”

Seeking to explain the challenge he faces, Gonzalez said: ”It’s

like following Bear Bryant. Or Jimmy Johnson following Don Shula.

Those kinds of things.”

Cox took Atlanta to the playoffs 15 times in his two decades

there.

Hernandez recalled fondly the mind games that went on when he’d

pitch against those Braves teams.

”All the time I’m thinking, ‘Bobby, he knows me very good. He’s

going to tell his players what I do.’ That makes me think,”

Hernandez said. ”He’s the kind of guy who knows what you do, what

you throw, what kind of pitches you’re going to throw in what

counts. So smart. Sometimes, I would look into the dugout, and he’s

looking at me, and I’d think, ‘What is he thinking?”’

The 47-year-old Gonzalez says he didn’t see any reason to make

many changes, given all of the success the Braves enjoyed under his

69-year-old predecessor.

As for the players? Well, outfielder Jason Heyward pointed to

one obvious difference between the two managers.

”I feel like Fredi is just younger, obviously, than Bobby,”

Heyward said. ”It’s not for me to compare, but that’s what we have

to work with as far as comparisons. … He’s younger, has a little

more pep in his step, pays a little more attention to detail, to

things he wants to take care of right away. So he’s a little more

hands-on.”

There are, of course, key players who’ll garner a lot of

attention Thursday, whatever they do.

There’s Jayson Werth, the right fielder whose $126 million,

seven-year contract with the Nationals that caught all of

baseball’s attention this offseason. He’s part of an all-new

starting outfield in Washington, with Rick Ankiel in center, and

Michael Morse in left.

”I’m starting a new chapter in my life. I plan on being here a

long time and making the most of it,” said Werth, who went from

the perennial NL East champion Philadelphia Phillies to the

perennial last-place Nationals. ”Obviously, there’s a

responsibility, taking on the contract that I’ve taken on and

coming here to Washington. I plan on being a leader on this

team.”

The Braves, meanwhile, welcome back Chipper Jones, who’s coming

off major knee surgery that kept him out of last year’s

playoffs.

On Thursday, Jones will be at third base and batting in his

customary No. 3 slot.

”He’s had a good spring, a real good spring,” Gonzalez said.

”There’s a twinkle in his eye. There’s something there.”

Strasburg is stuck thinking ahead to a year from now – when he

wants to start Washington’s first game of 2012.

The right-hander knows the work he’s ”putting in right now is

going to let me be there next opening day – hopefully pitching it,

too.”

Strasburg is throwing on flat ground from up to 105 feet and

aims to throw off a mound in about a month. He’s expected to miss

most or all of 2011.

He says the Nationals are watching him ”like hawks” to make

sure he doesn’t overdo his rehab work.

”I’m kind of not placing expectations on myself. I can’t

control how fast my body heals. Everything’s pointing to me being

back at the end of the year, so that’s what I’m hoping for,”

Strasburg said. ”But at the same time, I’m just going to let it

heal naturally. I’m not going to try and push the envelope.”

NOTES: Bryce Harper, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s

amateur draft, was at Nationals Park for the team’s workout and a

fan event. He’s slated to start the season at Class-A Hagerstown.

”I’m really excited to go to a town that – I don’t know if they

like baseball or not,” Harper said. ”Everybody’s telling me it’s

not that great. But I’m going to make it great, make it a baseball

town.” … Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said LaRoche is OK to

play Thursday. LaRoche got a cortisone shot over the weekend after

an MRI exam revealed a small labral tear in his left shoulder.

AP Sports Writer Charles Odum in Atlanta contributed to this

report.