WASHINGTON — The Battle of the Beltways may have felt like something of a forced, regional rivalry for most of its short existence, but never has it meant more to both teams than it does this season.
That’s not a result of any lingering animosity or bad blood, but the simple fact that both teams are fighting for postseason spots and are matching up at the latest point in the season that this series has taken place to date with both teams in the race.
Will that be enough to add some more fuel to the fire, to stoke the flames of this matchup into a true rivalry?
“It’s great for a region, because it inspires instruction in families, inspires arguments in families. One kid loves the Orioles and another kid loves the Nationals,” said Nationals Manager Dusty Baker at Camden Yards before the series opener. “Especially when the two teams are good teams, it’s great for baseball.”
Last year, the Nats hosted the Orioles for three games in late September, but only after the point when the Orioles had been long eliminated and the Nationals all but so. That is not the case this year, with the Orioles scratching and clawing to stay afloat in a tight AL East race while clinging to a Wild Card spot with five more teams breathing down their backs, all within four games.
The Nationals have a bit more breathing room, but with Stephen Strasburg hitting the disabled list Monday, the strongest component of their team is suddenly weakened.
Washington leads all MLB clubs with 8.8 wins above average from its starting rotation (the Cubs and Indians are next closest at 7.5). They’ll still have Tanner Roark and Max Scherzer in the second and final games of the four-game home-and-home, but will be relying on a rookie Wednesday, just as they did in Monday night’s 4-3 loss.
A.J. Cole performed admirably enough in a spot start, allowing four runs over seven innings of work, walking two and fanning eight, but in the end, the Orioles won for the fourth straight time and the 15th time in 21 games dating back to 2012.
Strangely, Baltimore has quietly dominated Washington in the rivalry, taking the season series each of the past four years.
With the two teams heading in different directions coming into Monday night, the Orioles are under pressure to do so again.
The teams’ respective positions in the playoff chase lent different weight to the importance of the series for each club. Before Monday, the Nationals were 19-14 since the break, the Orioles just 16-20. In fact, Baltimore had dropped three of its last four series and was just 4-9 in its last 13 games coming in.
When you consider that the Nats don’t play another team currently above .500 in any of their next seven series, you could argue that the Battle of the Beltways really isn’t that much important for them at all.
But there is that sliver of a chance that it could be a World Series preview, like it was in the Bay Area in 1989 and New York in 2000. That might be the only way to turn the matchup into a true rivalry.
While it might test the loyalties of some local fans, Dusty would be all for it.
“It would be great to have a Beltway Series, a Beltway World Series,” he said.
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