The new-look Miami Marlins arrive this weekend for another critical series. The Nationals are off to their best start since arriving in D.C. in 2005, and face a confident Marlins squad that has won four straight and stands at 7-6.
"I think they had a great offseason," manager Davey Johnson said of the Marlins. "They have a lot of quality players. We have had trouble with them in the past. We saw them quite a bit in spring training. I am looking forward to this series. They have a fine ball club. They are going to test our mettle."
The Marlins have had a consistent history testing the mettle of the Nationals and coming out on top, but the gap is closing quickly as the Nationals get better.
Former Nationals and Marlins outfielder Josh Willingham told me they were a confident bunch, but those years the Nats were struggling, the Marlins knew they had a good chance of coming out of D.C. with victories.
The record book corroborates Willingham's statement: The Marlins are 26-9 lifetime at Nationals Park. Last season was no different, the Marlins won seven of nine on South Capitol Street.
Starting the season well against the Marlins has not been the Nationals' pattern, but recently the Nats have built some momentum. The last two seasons, the Nationals have gone 4-5 versus the Marlins to begin the season. In 2008 and 2009, however, the Marlins dominated the Nationals, winning 17 of the first 18 matchups.
If you look at the first series between the Nationals and Marlins in D.C. each year since 2007, the Fish have won 11 of those 15 meetings.
So do the Nationals change the way they play against the Marlins or a National League East opponent because of games' importance in the divisional race?
Shortstop Ian Desmond said you can't play that way and be successful over a long season.
"Everybody we play we got to beat," Desmond said. "It's not like we say, 'Oh, we are playing the Marlins, we got to turn it up a notch.' We are going out to win every game. We have got to play our brand of baseball every game we play against whoever it is. Wins are wins. We will take them however we can get them."
Last season, the Marlins won the series 11-7, but the Nationals took three of the last four games at the end of the season. With the great start the Nationals have put together, they have to believe they now can stand toe to toe and challenge the Fish. This weekend is the start.