BALTIMORE — We got our first inkling this year of what a true Nationals-Orioles rivalry could be like. And what it could be like is heavenly, like a snow cone on a summer day — sweet, refreshing and not nearly long-lasting enough.
In seasons past, meetings between the two teams were of more importance to the Washington-Baltimore Mutual Loathing Society than to the American and National league standings. That’s how inconsequential the Nats and O’s were in the baseball universe. But this year they’re solid clubs battling for division titles, which gives every game Genuine Importance.
So much so that virtually every seat was filled for the six Nationals-Orioles match-ups in recent weeks. Average attendance: 42,485. Increase over 2011: 9,354. Nobody had much excuse for leaving one of the games early, either. Four were decided by a run, an agonizing three by a 2-1 score.
Indeed, the O’s are a lot like the Nats. As Ryan Zimmerman put it, “They play well together. Good pitching. Their core guys have kinda grown up together and learned how to win. … Both organizations have done it the right way. It’s fun to be part of that.”
Of course, it wasn’t quite as much fun after Sunday’s 2-1 loss at Camden Yards, which gave the Orioles a 4-2 edge in this season’s Beltway Bloodlettings. Once again, the Nationals didn’t generate many scoring opportunities, which enabled the O’s to win it with, in Danny Espinosa’s words “one swing of the bat.” The bat, belonging to Matt Wieters, knocked a misplaced Sean Burnett fastball over the center-field fence in the eighth inning for a game-winning two-run homer.
But then, it’s been a one-swing-of-the-bat kind of season for the first-place Nats (41-29), who have played a succession of gut-churning games — and, thanks to their dazzling collection of arms, won a bunch of them. The challenge the rest of the way will be to jump-start some of their stalled bats so their pitchers will have more of a margin for error.
Burnett, after all, had been “almost perfect every time out,” before Sunday, Davey Johnson said — as his 1.04 ERA attested. But one regrettable pitch had him feeling, as his teammates quietly packed their bags for Colorado, like he’d let them down. Starter Ross Detwiler wasn’t overly enthusiastic about his performance either, despite five shutout innings in his return to the rotation. Why? Because he hadn’t pitched deep enough into the game.
“[Being] the fifth starter means you eat up innings,” he said.
It just shows how much the Nationals are leaning on their hurlers — unhealthily so, perhaps. It also explains why Bryce Harper boldly stretched a routine single into a double in sixth, when the Nats were up 1-0.
“Leading off the inning, you try to make something happen as much as you can,” he said. But that was only part of the explanation. The other part was that, given the club’s offensive struggles, he was looking for any he could to get into scoring position — figuring somebody (Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Michael Morse) would drive him home. He even stole third, uncontested, with two out, but died there when Ian Desmond popped to second.
The afternoon’s most positive development for the Nationals was that Zimmerman got a shot in his aching right shoulder — your basic Painkiller Cocktail — about an hour before the game and responded with two singles and the lone Washington RBI. For a guy who’d been in a 5-for-50 free fall, this qualifies as big news. Your No. 3 hitter can’t have a .223/289/.308 slash line indefinitely, and Zim could well wind up back on the disabled list if he doesn’t snap out of it. He certainly seemed pleased with the swings he got Sunday against Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop.
“Hopefully,” he said, “I won’t have to do this again. [One shot] will help you get over the hump. … But I can play through this, and that’s what I plan to do for the rest of the year.”
Anyway, another season series is in the books for the Nationals and Orioles, and it sure was different from its predecessors. You look around the field now, and you count the All-Stars … and the could-be All-Stars … and the future All-Stars -Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Tyler Clippard, Ian Desmond and Harper for Washington; Wieters, Adam Jones, Jim Johnson and Jason Hammel for Baltimore.
The rivalry hasn’t had that dimension before. All it’s had going for it, mostly, is the enmity the two cities have for each other. But it can be so much more than that — as we’ve seen the past six weeks. It can give baseball fans hereabouts a taste of what New York and Chicago have.