Marty Niland: The start of summer - and a division race?

Memorial Day weekend traditions abound in the Washington area. From tributes to America's fallen heroes at Arlington National Cemetery and other resting places to the rumble of Rolling Thunder motorcyclists honoring MIAs to parades, picnics, pool openings and beach vacations, we have our own ways of marking the unofficial start of summer.

Now, thanks to the Nationals' surprising play this season, we have a new one: watching meaningful baseball.

Until now, this was usually the weekend when all but the most serious baseball fans might firm up their travel plans or peruse the library for summer page-turners - anything to occupy their time and minds as the Nationals dropped out of contention. Aside from 2010, when they were three games behind Philadelphia on May 28, and 2005, when they were 3 1/2 games in back of Atlanta on May 27, the Nats were well on their way to a losing season by this time.

Not this year. The Nationals' 26-18 record is easily their best at this point, and they enter the weekend series in Atlanta in first place, a game up on the Braves. Even in their surprising 2005 season, when they led the division by as many a 5 1/2 games and were in first place in late July, they were just 24-24 at this time. In 2010, they were 25-24 before the bottom dropped out.

But best of all, for the first time since that initial season in Washington, the Nats have an honest to goodness first-place showdown with a National League East rival. According to Baseball-Reference.com, not since July 26, 2005, when the Nats met Atlanta, have they played an NL East team for the division lead after April. That 2005 series came in the midst of a six-game losing streak, when the Nats fell out of first place. Within a week, they were five games back and never got closer, as they staggered from 13 games over .500 to an 81-81 fifth-place finish.

Now, with a more mature organization and baseball's top pitching staff, the Nats have a chance to make things different. But the Braves will provide one of their toughest tests. Atlanta is the most powerful NL team the Nats have faced, with 45 home runs coming into Thursday night's games, and tied with St. Louis as the league's highest-scoring team with 231 runs.

The Nats own a 65-64 lead over the Braves since moving to Washington, and each team won nine of their 18 meetings last season. With Washington's dominant pitching this season and Atlanta's superior bats, neither team has an obvious edge as they meet for the first time this year.

For all the talk of a rivalry with Philadelphia, the 2012 season is now pointing to a division race in a different direction - south. The Nats and Braves will play six games in the next 10 days. They could mark the start of a summer when baseball keeps that reading list on hold.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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