In the past 111 years, there’s seldom been much need to ask the basic questions about two teams that play 40 miles apart: Which one is better?
Now, in a turnabout few outside Baltimore expected a few weeks ago, the Orioles have their beaks ahead of the Nationals. Standings shifts, and mood swings, are constant in baseball. But after their third loss in four games to the O’s on Thursday, the Nats’ .500 spring continues to be sobering — a constant headache after their 2012 binge: “The Hangover: Game 54.”
While the Nats haven’t been nearly as good as (oops) they themselves predicted, the O’s have overcome pitching hardships and lived up to their own quiet, private expectations for themselves: a 90-win pace.
Both teams have injuries, the Nats to three key hitters, the O’s to two starting pitchers. But the Orioles made due as cast-adrift 15-year vet Freddy Garcia had eight innings of three-hit shutout ball in a 2-0 win over the Nats.
How lost are the Nats? Ian Desmond, a team leader, offered this final comment on the Nats inability to figure out that Garcia was basically throwing the same pitch — a forkball — in every meaningful count: “Not making an excuse, but our first base coach is on maternity leave.”
Say again? With Tony Tarasco away for a few days, the Nats have used hitting coach Rick Eckstein to coach at first. So, Eck can’t stay on the bench, hold hands with hitters and whisper, “Don’t swing at splitters in the dirt.”
Now, the not-making-excuses Nats are now 51
2 games behind the Braves with a three-day trip to Atlanta on tap.
In a sense, mid-Atlantic baseball fans have waited generations for a rivalry between these two radically different but cheek-to-jowl cities. They just didn’t know it. For 52 years, Baltimore was without a team. For 33 years, D.C. had none. When both had franchises, either the Orioles were excellent and the Nats stunk, or they were both losers.
When they met last June, the light was finally breaking through for both franchises. By October, both were in the playoffs. Now, however, a sense of permanent change surrounds both teams. What we’ve seen for the past four days is a move by Baltimore to look the highly touted preseason favorite Washingtonians squarely in the eye.
In fact, the O’s now have the better record (30-24 to 27-27), the better run differential (plus-21 to minus-23) and over the past two years combined have only two fewer wins — 123-93 to 125-91 for Washington.
Some things you think you’ll never see. Or, at least, conventional baseball thinkers tell you its impossible. Then, one day, the Nats and O’s are both packed with good players, the O’s with the best offense in baseball, the Nats with perhaps the most coveted four young starters in one rotation.