Twenty years later, Braves in another amazing race
It was the Giants in 1993 and the Nationals now in long quest for division title
ATLANTA -- To understand where the Atlanta Braves may be headed, regarding the possibility of engaging the Washington Nationals in the Mother of All divisional races near the end of this season, let's go back to where the Braves already have been.
Like way back.
Like 20 years ago, when Tim Hudson wasn't the Braves' ace starting pitcher, but their most ardent of fans.
Back then, during the fall of 1993, Hudson was home in Phoenix City, Ala., celebrating the weeks-long aftermath of pitching his high school baseball team to a state championship. He also was agonizing over the plight of his favorite Major League team down the stretch of its divisional race.
"The Braves needed to sweep going into that last weekend, didn't they?" said Hudson, reminiscing from his locker at Turner Field. He was correct, by the way. In fact, the '93 Braves couldn't afford to lose -- period -- through September and into the beginning of October. They were seeking to snatch the old National League West from a potent and persistent group of San Francisco Giants.
Those same attributes applied to the Braves. As a result, while the Giants finished with 103 victories, the Braves finished with 104 to capture what some call "The Last Great Pennant Race."
The current rosters of the Braves and the Nationals are loaded enough to make 1993 live again in the NL East.
"You know, it very well could end up that way," said Hudson, 37, who only was sort of correct. The difference between now and 1993 is that back then, it was all or nothing. You won the division, or you went home. Now, the loser of such a scenario has a shot at making the playoffs with one of the two Wild Card slots for both leagues.
But you get Hudson's point. To emphasize it, he said, "I feel like both teams are really good. I feel like both teams are balanced. I think we're very, very similar. I think our teams are competitive. I don't see one team running away with the division."
Then Hudson paused, before adding with a grin, "If one team does run away with it, I hope it's ours, of course."
The early signs are promising for the Braves, but only if you forget the season just finished its first month. Then again, what a month it was for the Braves, especially when it came to their ability to make the Nationals look irrelevant, along the way to seeking to add another division title to the Braves' slew of them.
Despite all of that hitting and pitching, the Nationals can't beat the Braves these days -- at least not consistently.
There was the Braves' three-game sweep in Washington in early April, and they opened a four-game series on Monday night at Turner Field against the Nationals with a 3-2 victory. Going back to last year, the Braves were sporting an eight-game winning streak against the Nationals.
If you combine that with the Braves' flying start this season, they began Tuesday's action with the league's best record at 16-9, and they held a 3 1/2-game lead in the division over the second-place Nationals.
Braves center fielder B.J. Upton shrugged.
"We still have over five months of baseball left," Upton said. "If you put too much emphasis on a series like this, it can work against you. Obviously, we know they're a division rival or whatever you want to call it. But at the same time, we just have to go out there and play."
Upton has a reason for avoiding emotional extremes: The New York Yankees, often the kings of the AL East. Goodness knows, Upton didn't play for the Yankees. He played against them during his eight seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays before joining the Braves this year.
After the Rays finished last in the division in 2007 during Upton's first full season, they topped the Yankees and everybody else in 2008 for the division and the pennant.
Two years later, the Rays won the AL East again.
"The bottom line is that you have to realize a lot can happen over the course of a long season, so you have to learn how to stay at an even-keel," said Upton, always with a calm demeanor. "Baseball is such an up and down sport, and you can see that with how we started this season."
The Braves went from 12-1 to just completing a three-city road trip in which they lost 7 of 10. The Nationals have suffered even more ups and downs to carry a record of 13-13 into Tuesday night's game.
Still, the promise that is the big picture remains for both teams. And the big picture begins with starting pitching. You have the impressive likes of Paul Maholm, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Hudson for the Braves and Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler, Jordan Zimmermann and Dan Haren for the Nationals.
The bullpens are superb for both teams.
With Justin Upton leading the way for the Braves and Bryce Harper for the Nationals, both teams can score in a hurry.
Both teams also have recent success. The Nationals won the NL East last year to become the first baseball team in the District of Columbia to reach the postseason since 1933, and the Braves made the playoffs as one of the NL's Wild Card teams.
It sounds like games between the two are more critical than those against the Philadelphia Phillies, the New York Mets and the Miami Marlins -- their other division foes -- and everybody else.
"Well, I think it goes back to the old saying -- 'You can't win the thing in April or May, but you can definitely lose it,'" said Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche. "So if you looked at these same games against the Braves, and if we were playing them in September, and if we're down a couple of games or up a couple of games, it would be a lot bigger deal."
Everything was a huge deal for the Braves and the Giants down that stretch drive of 1993.
Could this be more of the same?
LaRoche cringed, saying, "Oh, man. It's too early for that. There is no doubt both teams are capable of battling each other to the end, but you would have to have so many things go right."
Or so many things go wrong, for that matter.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.