BALTIMORE — So is it time for the Nationals to take their annual spanking from their slightly, but nonetheless distinctly, inferior baseball neighbors in Baltimore? Four games this week will tell the tale.
On Monday night, as has so often been the case for the previous 10 years of this Battle of the Beltway series, the teams were evenly matched, the score was close, but Baltimore, perhaps a little more intense about the rivalry than the Nats, and maybe toughened by their rugged American League East foes, won, 4-3.
“Some teams match up well against others even though that’s not what their records might [indicate],” said Ryan Zimmerman, who has been with the Nationals for all the years of these meetings. “For some reason, they always seem to be a tough matchup for us.”
Understatement. Since 2010, Baltimore has dominated the rivalry, winning 23 of 34 games. And most of that has been under Manager Buck Showalter (19-9), who took over in mid-2010 and knows the Nats’ weaknesses far better than the four Nationals managers during that period have had time to learn the Orioles’.
On Tuesday night, the roof fell on rookie Reynaldo Lopez, who had just beaten the Atlanta Braves (last in MLB in runs) back-to-back. The Orioles ain’t the Braves. Only two teams score more runs in their home park than the O’s. The Orioles, pathetic against southpaws, absolutely crush right-handers — and 10 of the Nationals’ current 12-man staff fit that description. Righty Lopez got eight outs and gave up six runs in an 8-1 loss at Camden Yards.
Yet all of this Orioles bravado blows the top off the baseball irony scale. Since Showalter arrived, the Nats have had a better overall record all seven seasons — except 2014, when they tied at 96 wins. Since the Expos came to D.C. in 2005, the Nats have had better records than the O’s nine times out of 12, plus that tie.
The Nats have also gotten the best of the attendance battle throughout this era, topping the O’s in nine of those 12 years and barely missing by 84 fans one year (not that anybody’s counting). This season, for the seventh straight season, the Nats draw bigger crowds (31,763 to 27,141). And the Nats charge higher prices so, as Orioles GM Dan Duquette noted Tuesday, “They always operate with bigger revenues. So we have to be more resourceful.”
“Good atmosphere,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said of his first experience of the Parkway Battle. Then he added that he expected a bigger crowd (than 31,660). “But I guess kids are back in school,” Baker said. “Might have been better [for Baltimore] to have it on the weekend.”
Dusty didn’t mean it as a dig. But if you put the comment on a T-shirt — “Too bad the Baltimore kids were back in school” — and sent it to the B&O Warehouse c/o owner Peter Angelos, you might hear an explosion.
Angelos knows perfectly well which franchise wins more games each year and which franchise wins its division. Nats’ NL East odds: 99 percent; Orioles’ AL East odds: 6 percent. Peter knows that attendance, too.
Since the day the new Nationals were born, the Orioles and their ownership have loathed the Washington team, frustrated that, after many years of blocking every attempt to bring a team to D.C., the Nats had the audacity to exist. And just 40 miles away from Camden Yards.
Some doubt the intensity of this “rivalry.” Nationals players, and Baker, barely seem to have any sense of it. But, each year, Showalter and his players — as well as many vocal Orioles fans who come to Nationals Park for games like those that will be played in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday — certainly seem to get it. Everyone here who loves the O’s knows which town can afford a $210 million free agent (Max Scherzer) or a $175 million contract extension (Stephen Strasburg). It’s not Baltimore. Except for a seven-year, $161 million extension to two-time homer champ Chris Davis, the O’s just don’t go crazy.
In the past five years, the man who may, along with Showalter, have done the most to make the Orioles competitive with the Nats — and only 13 wins behind them in total victories since 2012 — is Duquette.
Duquette can’t offer seven-year guaranteed contracts and risk budget- and roster-exploding injuries. One O’s decision maker, at the mention of Zimmerman’s name, bugs out his eyes, says what a great guy Zim is, “but have you seen how much money they still have due on that contract?”
Instead, Duquette takes what’s available once the rich teams end their feeding frenzy; he usually offers one, two or three years, often to players with dented reputations such as Nelson Cruz. Duquette grabbed Cruz, who’d been busted by MLB for PEDs, for one year in 2014. But he hit 40 homers. This year, there was almost no market for slugger Pedro Alvarez, whose distinctions include an NL home run title, a Vanderbilt education and perhaps the worst glove since Dick Stuart. For $5.75 million and a compensation pick, the Orioles have gotten 19 homers out of Alvarez in 82 games.
Trade with Duquette at your own risk. If, somehow, the Orioles manage to get to the World Series this year, you can bet that Mark Trumbo, with 38 homers and 93 RBI already, will be a huge part of it. If such a Series moment arrives, maybe MLB should get Steve Clevenger, part-time catcher, to throw out the first ball. Why? That’s who Duquette traded to get Trumbo — just Clevenger, four career homers in six seasons.
Many general managers look for quality players in Japan, especially because many great Japanese players have provided data for projecting production from that league to MLB. But South Korean baseball gets overlooked. Well, not by the Orioles. Obscurity produces low prices.
“Over the years you have to go to every country where they play baseball — Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Venezuela, every place in the Caribbean,” said Showalter, who has done just that. So he knew that outfielder Hyun Soo Kim, currently hitting .317 for the Orioles, had prospered despite playing in the largest ballpark in the Korean League.
Duquette signed the 28-year-old for just $7 million over two years.
The “resourceful” Orioles of Showalter and Duquette continue to get almost as good results on the field in terms of wins and losses as the Nats over the past five years while coming close to “owning” the Nats head to head. For now, there really hasn’t been a “Battle of the Beltway.” It’s still just a concept or a marketing tag. Because you can’t have a battle or a rivalry if, year after year, only one team shows up.