The Washington Nationals' preliminary schedule for 2006 gets interesting even before Opening Day, which will take place April 3 in New York, where the Nationals begin the season against the Mets. The team's final two exhibition games will be against the Baltimore Orioles, one at RFK Stadium and one at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore.

The twist to the end of the Grapefruit League spring training schedule places further emphasis on what baseball officials hope will be a burgeoning rivalry between the two franchises, which play just 35 miles apart. The teams will meet in the regular season May 19-21 at RFK Stadium and again June 23-25 in Baltimore, according to the preliminary schedule, which is subject to slight changes.

The Nationals and Orioles didn't meet in this, the Nationals' first season in Washington. But baseball officials plan for the two franchises to be "natural rivals" in interleague play, meaning they will face each other, home and home, every season. The Nationals' former "natural rival" was Toronto, a product of the franchise's time in Montreal.

The Nationals will host their second home opener on April 11 against the Mets. But the early part of their schedule is grueling. Thirteen of their first 16 games, and 30 of the first 42, are on the road, meaning the team's chance at success will be determined by how well they handle life away from home early in the season. They close with six consecutive games at home, three against the Philadelphia Phillies and three against the Mets.

In interleague play, the Nationals will host the Orioles, the New York Yankees (June 16-18), and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (June 30-July 2). They will play at Baltimore, Boston (June 19-21) and Toronto (June 27-29).

The schedule is marked by five monstrous homestands. The longest is from Aug. 25-Sept. 6, when Atlanta, Philadelphia, Arizona and St. Louis will visit RFK for a total of 12 games. There is one 11-game stretch at home, from June 8 to June 18 against Philadelphia, Colorado and the Yankees. And there are three 10-game homestands: May 19-28 (Baltimore, Houston, and the Los Angeles Dodgers), June 30-July 9 (Tampa Bay, Florida and San Diego), and Aug. 8-17 (Florida, the New York Mets and Atlanta).

The Nationals will be home on the Fourth of July for the second straight year, this time facing the Florida Marlins, and will host the St. Louis Cardinals on Labor Day, but they will play at Philadelphia on Memorial Day.

Game times have not been announced, though the team is expected to keep 7:05 p.m. as its starting time for weeknight and Saturday games and 1:05 p.m. for Sundays.