Originally posted on The Outside Corner  |  Last updated 4/5/12

Going into the 2012 season, two of the most talked about teams are the Nationals and the Cubs. The Nationals took a step closer to contention by signing Edwin Jackson and trading for Gio Gonzalez, while the Cubs revamped their front office by adding Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, who proceeded to come close to blowing up the team. It's rather appropriate for these two teams to be playing on the season's opening weekend, with all of the discussion surrounding the two teams.

The three pitching matchups in the series all look solid. On Opening Day (today), Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg will take the mound on his first Opening Day to face veteran Ryan Dempster of the Cubs. Game two on Saturday will feature one of the new Nationals, Gio Gonzalez, taking on arguably the Cubs most talented pitcher in Matt Garza. And then finally, on Sunday, the Nationals will roll oue their own talented youngster Jordan Zimmermann, while the Cubs counter with Jeff Samardzija, the former Notre Dame wide receiver who was a flamethrowing reliever for the Cubs prior to this spring, when he won a spot in the rotation.

Washington's Opening Day roster has taken some hits, with star outfielder Michael Morse starting the year on the DL with a back injury. Also on the DL are center fielder Rick Ankiel, closer Drew Storen, and starter Chien-Ming Wang. Due to the injuries in the outfield, the Nationals will have an Opening Day outfield of Xavier Nady, Roger Bernadina, and Jayson Werth. Of those three, Werth had the highest OPS last season...at .719. I know Nationals GM Mike Rizzo couldn't have seen Morse's injury coming, but he didn't have a contingency plan at all? It seemed to me that in his mind, his Opening Day outfield would be Morse-Bryce Harper-Werth...and only one of those three will be there today. The infield is the same as last year: Ryan Zimmerman and his new contract at third, error-prone Ian Desmond at short, Danny Espinosa at second, and Adam LaRoche, who missed a huge chunk of last season, at first.

As for the Cubs, they upgraded in a few areas this year, and you can't blame the Epstein/Hoyer regime for things not going according to plans, because they open the year with no one on the DL. There's a lot of mediocrity in the infield, with Starlin Castro being the only above average regular. Ian Stewart can get there if he stays healthy, though. Darwin Barney is an awful hitter, though good defensively, and first baseman Bryan LaHair is a wild card due to his status as a career minor leaguer, but he won't be in today's lineup due to a back injury. In the outfield, the biggest name free agent signed by the Cubs this offseason (David DeJesus) will lead off and play right field, joined by the infuriating Alfonso Soriano and Marlon Byrd, who numerous teams had interest in near the end of Spring Training.

So I've explained the teams, but I haven't explained something else: why is this series so important? Both teams really want to take this series for different reasons. The Nationals and their fans are entering this year with the most optimism they've had since the team moved from Montreal to DC before the 2005 season. Because many fans are in the "jump to conclusions" mindset, a season-opening series loss to the Cubs, expected to not be a contender this year, would cause fans to run to their windows and stick a foot out (despite the fact that it's just three of 162 games). If the team was able to get off to a good start, the vibes surrounding the team would be a lot better going into the home opener next weekend. A series in New York against the Mets after they leave DC should also set them up for a good start. If the Nationals are under .500 after their first six games, there is going to be a lot of negative talk surrounding the team, whether or not it's warranted.

As for the Cubs, most Cubs fans are resigned to the fact that they're not going to be contending this year. However, if the Cubs can come out against the Nationals and look competitive, maybe the fans won't be so miserable all season. I'm well aware that a good majority of the players in their Opening Day lineup won't be around for the long haul, but if the team gets solid starts from Garza and Samardzija, two guys that the Cubs ARE counting on to be a part of their future, maybe there will be a nice sense of optimism surrounding the team for future years. It's also important for the Cubs to at least have a sense of competing early on so that the fans don't grab their pitchforks and torches and run the new Epstein/Hoyer regime out of town right away.

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This article first appeared on The Outside Corner and was syndicated with permission.

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