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Divergent paths bring pals together for opener

Divergent paths bring pals together for opener

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Divergent paths bring pals together for opener
ATLANTA -- When Braves catcher Brian McCann was experiencing his first Major League Opening Day while opposing Derek Lowe and the Dodgers in 2006, he remembers countless emotions and thoughts running through his head.

"You've just got to take it all in and enjoy it," McCann said. "It will come and go. It's an exciting moment."

Much has changed in the five years that have since elapsed. When McCann sits behind the plate Thursday afternoon at Nationals Park, he'll be spending his third consecutive Opening Day serving as Lowe's catcher.

While McCann and his Braves teammates were knocking Lowe around for eight runs in five innings that rainy afternoon at Dodger Stadium five years ago, Freddie Freeman was about 30 minutes south experiencing his junior season at El Modena High School in Orange, Calif.

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As McCann, Lowe and many of the other Braves veterans enjoy the excitement surrounding Opening Day on Thursday afternoon, they'll do whatever they can to make Freeman comfortable as he prepares to experience his first Opening Day in the Majors.

"He's a good, grounded kid," Braves backup catcher David Ross said. "He just needs to be himself and enjoy it."

When Freeman's good friend, Jason Heyward, arrived at Spring Training last year, he never allowed himself to be affected by the attention he gained as the game's top overall prospect. He accepted the challenge of proving he was ready to serve as the Braves' starting right fielder and then electrified the city of Atlanta when he hit a three-run, first-inning homer on Opening Day.

Ranked by MLB.com as the game's 17th-best prospect and the Braves' second-best prospect, Freeman took a little different path than Heyward.

After spending the past summer dominating the Triple-A level that Heyward essentially bypassed the year before, Freeman came to Spring Training virtually guaranteed that he would begin this season as Atlanta's starting first baseman.

"He just had to come play, be healthy and be ready to go," Heyward said.

Now that he escaped the exhibition season healthy and excited to begin his rookie season, Freeman is looking forward to the chance to battle Livan Hernandez and the Nationals on Thursday. But the 21-year-old first baseman said he is trying to keep his emotions in check.

"I have not pictured anything yet," Freeman said. "I will picture it tomorrow when Opening Day is here."

Having already gained plenty of valuable Opening Day experience, Chipper Jones said he would tell Freeman that it might not hurt to get sick before leaving the clubhouse.

"Make yourself throw up before you get out there on the field so that you don't do that in front of God and everybody," Jones said. "It can be a pretty nerve-racking time. But once you get that first ground ball and first at-bat out of the way, it's just baseball."

Heyward completed his first at-bat in impressive fashion, utilizing his first swing to produce the three-run homer that will forever be a part of Braves history.

While Freeman would like to experience something similar Thursday, he and Heyward are entering this season knowing they have been given a special opportunity to play together at the Majors while both are just 21 years old.

Some might say it's a dream come true. But since they were selected by the Braves in the first two rounds of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, this is a dream that Heyward and Freeman expected would come, where they would be part of the same big league lineup on a daily basis.

"This opportunity doesn't happen that often, and it's something you want to enjoy and not take for granted," Heyward said. "We just want to come in doing more of the same, working hard and playing the game we love."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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