Last year if you told someone the Washington Nationals and the Baltimore Orioles would play a series against each other that would determine who would maintain their respective hold on first place, that person would have laughed in your face. But, your prediction would have been correct, as the Nats (23-15) are set to face the O's (25-14) at Nationals Park this weekend for the Battle of the Beltways, a series that could notably alter the rankings of both teams.
Although the Nationals lost first place to the Atlanta Braves last night after the Nats' loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, they remain within a half of a game of first place, and could easily reclaim the top spot if they make a good showing against the Orioles.
From the opposite dugout, the Tampa Bay Rays are ready to snatch first place from the Orioles if they don't win against the Nationals. The Rays sit in second place in the AL East, and are only one game behind the Orioles.
Needless to say, there is an added pressure for both teams to win this series, even if it is only for preservation of bragging rights.
The last shall be first
The Orioles have made quite the turnaround from last season when they had the worst ERA in baseball (4.89) and finished the season in last place in the AL East with a record of 69-93. This year they have maintained their presence at the top of their division, and as of this morning, the Orioles have the best record in the American League. They have spiked their team ERA from dead last to 7th place (.341), and they also lead the majors in home runs with 61.
The Nationals have also shown that they are not the same team that finished last year with an 80-81 record and has never had a winning season. I think this year's Nationals are looking to fight hard to preserve their untraditional first place standings, and a series win against their first place neighbors would be a great way to prove me right.
The Nationals are 17-19 against the Orioles and have a 10-8 record at home. Since 1997 when interleague play began, the Nationals (before 2005 as the Montreal Expos) have fared a little better than the Orioles in interleague games: the Nats have a 125-137 record, while the O's are at 115-150.
Although the Orioles have hit the most home runs in the majors, the Nationals have given up the least - tied at 23 with the Miami Marlins. However, even if the Nats' pitchers can keep the Orioles from hitting home runs, they still lag 20 spaces behind the O's in overall runs scored with 137. The Orioles have scored the sixth most runs in baseball at 182. The Nationals will have to pick up the pace offensively if they want to contend with the high-scoring Orioles, who have scored five or more runs in 11 of their last 16 games (for comparison, the Nats have only done that six times in the same time frame).
A little birdie flew down K Street
The Nationals are still the kings of K Street, leading the Major Leagues with the lowest team ERA (2.94), highest number of strikeouts (329), and lowest opponent batting average (.216). Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg are in first and second place in the National League for strikeouts with 60 and 56, respectively. The Nationals pitchers are probably itching to introduce the Orioles to their favorite letter of the alphabet: the O's are leaders in K's at the plate (second most in the majors with 316).
A potential pitcher problem
Right-handed pitcher Jason Hammel has been struggling with soreness in his right knee for much of the season. He will face the Nationals after coming off his worst start this season, during which he allowed five earned runs. Brittany Ghiroli for MLB.com wrote that Hammel hasn't felt any discomfort in his knee since his last start, but that he "didn't anticipate being cleared to run any time soon." The inability to run could certainly prove problematic if Hammel - who will have to bat for the first time this season - finds himself on base and has to... well, run.
Adam Jones (CF) .296 AVG, .604 SLG, 13 HR, 26 RBI
Chris Davis (1B) .296 AVG, .472 SLG, 5 HR, 15 RBI (and he can pitch too!)
Wei-Yin Chen (SP) 2.45 ERA, 32 SO, 3 HR
Jason Hammel (SP) 2.68 ERA, 41 SO, 3 HR
Ryan Flaherty (3B) .152 AVG, .217 SLG, 1 HR, 17 SO (in 46 at bats)
Wilson Betemit (3B) .233 AVG, .456 SLG, 6 HR, 30 SO
Nick Johnson (1B, DH) .167 AVG, .352 SLG, 2 HR, 16 SO (in 54 at bats)
Edwin Jackson (1-1, .371 ERA) vs. Jake Arrieta (2-4, 5.21 ERA)
Ross Detwiler (3-2, 2.75 ERA) vs. Jason Hammel (4-1, 2.68 ERA)
Stephen Stasburg (3-1, 2.25) vs. Wei-Yin Chen (4-0, 2.45 ERA)