Battle of the Beltways becomes game of survival for Nationals, Orioles

WASHINGTON — When the 2015 Major League Baseball schedule was released, a quick glance revealed a potentially crucial rivalry series between two mid-Atlantic rivals. The three-game set at Nationals Park between the Nats and O’s Sept. 21-23 was the latest-ever meeting in the history of the Battle of the Beltways, one that could determine both teams’ postseason fates.

But as Baltimore comes to Washington this week, both teams are simply clinging to the last vestiges of postseason hope.

Washington caught a break over the weekend, as the NL East-leading New York Mets dropped two-of-three at home to the crosstown rival Yankees. That allowed the Nats to creep back within 6 games in the division, their only chance at a playoff spot.

The Orioles’ tragic number is just 2 in the AL East, but sits at 8 in the AL Wild Card chase, the same as Washington’s in the NL East. But the O’s have to not only catch the Houston Astros, they have to leapfrog the Indians, Twins and Angels, as well. That’s why even though the math says Baltimore is alive, the probability of another playoff appearance is less than one percent.

Washington’s road is far more clear cut, and also far more under their control. Because their final three games of the season take place in Queens against the first-place Mets, all the Nationals really have to do have a chance is get within three games of New York heading into that final series. That means winning at least three more games than the Mets over each team’s final 10 before the season-ending series.

That may sound like a tall order, but Washington can take solace in the fact that the team is 12-4 in August against everyone but the Mets. A big part of that is the Nats’ 11-3 mark against teams with losing records. The best news for Washington is that every team they will face between now and that final series (Baltimore for 3, Philadelphia for 3, Cincinnati for 1, at Atlanta for 3) is a sub-. 500 squad.

But they need to avoid what just happened to the Mets. And their track record over the past few years — since both Washington and Baltimore’s current cores reached the big leagues and first made the playoffs in 2012 — is troubling.

The Nats took two-of-three from Baltimore earlier this summer, but went just 1-3 against the Orioles last year, losing both home games. And Washington has lost the season series every year since 2012 (when both teams ended playoff droughts), going a combined 5-12 over the past four seasons. That makes this, in all likelihood, the toughest remaining test for Washington to stay hot in September.

The Nationals are batting .282 as a team in September, the highest mark for any month this season, and they’ve blasted a National League-leading 28 home runs this month. Gio Gonzalez — who is 2-0 with a 1.47 ERA and 26 strikeouts against just 9 walks in 18.1 innings over three starts in September — takes the hill in the opener against Ubaldo Jimenez, who has not been nearly as effective but also hasn’t been beaten since August.

That game is even bigger given Game 2 starter Tanner Roark’s struggles and Wednesday’s slated starter Max Scherzer’s uneven second half, which has seen him post an ERA over 4.00. Washington will hope Scherzer returns to his midseason performance at Camden Yards, in which he allowed a pair of runs over 8.2 innings in a 3-2 win heading into the All-Star break.

The Orioles, meanwhile, will hope Chris Davis’ scalding bat remains hot heading into Washington. Davis has hit nine home runs this month and was slashing .377/.525/.852 before his 1-for-3 with a home run and two walk performance in Tampa on Sunday. Adam Jones, who hit two home runs off Scherzer and another off Gonzalez in the July series, could also play a factor.

Here’s a look at the matchups for 2015’s final installation of the Battle of the Beltways:

EDIT: With Monday’s rainout, here are the new probable pitching matchups:

Tue., 7:05 p.m.: RHP Ubaldo Jimenez (11-9, 4.31) vs. LHP Gio Gonzalez (11-7, 3.83)

Wed., 7:05 p.m.: RHP Chris Tillman (9-11, 5.19) vs. RHP Max Scherzer (12-11, 2.90)

Thu., 4:05 p.m.: RHP Tyler Wilson (2-2, 3.72) vs. RHP Tanner Roark (4-6, 4.73)

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