Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

The Nationals-Orioles rivalry heats up, and fans are all in

Jonathan Newton/THE WASHINGTON POST - Manager Davey Johnson and Ryan Zimmerman have much to ponder as the Nationals slip to .500 with Thursday’s loss in Baltimore.

BALTIMORE — In 1902, Manager John McGraw, known as Little Napoleon, watched his ace Iron Man Joe McGinnity pitch to catcher Roger Bresnahan, called the Duke of Tralee, as Big Ed Delahanty stood at bat to hit. All four of those early baseball giants ended up in the Hall of Fame.

That may be the last time a game between franchises from Washington and Baltimore had much historical weight — until this week.

Video

The Post Sports Live crew debates which injured player’s return would be the biggest help to the Washington Nationals’ struggling offense.

The Post Sports Live crew debates which injured player’s return would be the biggest help to the Washington Nationals’ struggling offense.

Video

The Post Sports Live crew discusses what would happen to the Nationals’ lineup if Bryce Harper keeps suffering minor injuries.

The Post Sports Live crew discusses what would happen to the Nationals’ lineup if Bryce Harper keeps suffering minor injuries.

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.

“That’s just an exhausting lineup,” said Dan Haren who trailed 1-0 after seven innings on Thursday.

These teams’ appeal has not been lost on the locals. This week, the Nats moved up to ninth in MLB in attendance (33,410), ahead of both the Red Sox and Cubs, a head-shaking fact considering their status as baseball darlings. The Nats and O’s (27,079) are up 48 and 25 percent respectively since 2010. The two towns’ crowds, a combined (60,489), are now higher than both teams in Chicago, slightly behind San Francisco-Oakland and, for what it’s worth, ahead of both teams in Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.

But the reasons for that support, and big weekday crowds, are obvious.

The Orioles lead MLB in runs, home runs (75, a pace for 225), stolen bases, slugging percentage and Muscles Above Replacement. True, only three teams have a worse ERA than the Orioles. While the Nats’ struggling hitters may regain their career norms, ugly pitching goes straight to the bone.

As flawed as the Nats hitting and the O’s pitching may be, the future of both young teams is as bright as a new day, with 20-year-old stars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado (.332), and young veteran all-stars like Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Wieters, Desmond and Adam Jones.

If you don’t want to argue their merits, you don’t like ball. “We’re pretty evenly matched,” said Nats Manager Davey Johnson. “Their offense is running on all cylinders. Our offense has a few flat tires.”

“Right now they are an awfully good offensive club,” said Nats GM Mike Rizzo, pointing to the 57-homer, 150-RBI pace of first baseman Chris (Crush) Davis. “We like our starting pitching and our pitching in general. When healthy, and hitting like we can, we still think we’re as good as any team around.”

Which team has the better chance to reach the playoffs or even dream of winning the World Series? On that, you can get a genuine heated fuss between experts. ESPN number crunchers give the O’s a 34.4 percent chance to make the playoffs, much better than the Nats’ mere 22.3 percent.

However the reigning kings of geekdom reside at Baseball Prospectus. They’re so respected inside the industry that the Nats have a “Baseball Prospectus Day” at Nats Park on July 7. PECOTA, a Baseball Prospectus site, uses computer simulations to project performance. They think the Nats have a 41 percent chance to reach the playoffs and a 3.9 percent to win the Series (down from 11 percent preseason). The Orioles currently have only a 17.9 percent playoff chances, in part because they’re in the tough AL East, a minuscule 0.7 percent chance to win the Series.

The more than 145,000 fans at Nationals Park and Camden Yards this week can be expected to boo all of those dire pontifications.

The Nats’ Zimmerman speaks for the loyalists on both sides who think the best still lies ahead for both franchises.

“How did that [model] work out for them the last couple of years? Not very well, right?” said Zimmerman. “That’s why nerds shouldn’t do that stuff.”

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

 
Read what others are saying