Watching the Orioles-Nationals series play out over such a gorgeous weekend, with so much fine young talent on both sides of the diamond, it was hard not to project into it something more than just another interleague squabble. With Baltimore sitting comfortably atop the American League East and Washington still within hailing distance of the top of the National League East, well, sweet dreams are made of this.
On Sunday afternoon, it looked at first as if the Orioles might be the only real contender. After two wins they were confident in attacking Stephen Strasburg’s fastball and jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead. Nats fans had imagined their golden-armed stopper as the answer to losses Friday and Saturday, to a three-game losing streak. But Sunday looked like a replay of Saturday’s game. Yet the competitor in Strasburg realized that a beautiful weekend was about to go quietly into that good night without even a struggle. He came to bat in the third with grim purpose and singled to lead off the inning, igniting a rally that purchased a sliver of pride for the flailing Nationals who knotted the score at 3-3.
The tired arm was gone, the mojo was back. Strasburg struck out four of the next six batters for perfect fourth and fifth innings. Jesus Flores kept the momentum going in the fourth with a two-out homer to put Washington ahead 4-3, and the Strasburg did the unheard of. He went back-to-back, following the Flores shot with his first major league home run to give the Nationals a 5-3 lead. From there, the Nationals kept rolling and settled for a face-saving 9-3 win against the Orioles.
Since 2005, neither the Orioles nor the Nationals have been taken seriously as contenders. They play in the toughest divisions in the game. But when play began Friday night, the Orioles led the AL East and the Nationals were a mere half-game back in the NL East. No one is convinced that either the Orioles or Nationals have a right to be mentioned as serious threats to the Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox or Braves. But whether you see the budding Orioles club or the talented young Nationals as the team most on the path to greatness, the possibility of a Parkway World Series, of a championship baseball contest that never leaves the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, has gained something of a toehold in reality.
However potent you think the possibilities, the two teams rely on very different strengths. One has the best rotation in the game and the other a home run attack to make Earl Weaver proud. Yet both teams have been adept at winning games with climactic late-inning drama. The Baltimore bullpen was a disaster last season, but this year it is the reason the team survives to win in the those extra-inning affairs, as happened Friday night when the Orioles prevailed over the Nationals to win 2-1 in 11 innings.
Dan Duquette has made what seemed like small changes to the Orioles pitching staff, bringing in Matt Lindstrom and Darren O’Day in to support Jim Johnson. Though Lindstrom is on the DL, the group is still every bit as good for Baltimore as Tyler Clippard, Henry Rodriguez and Drew Storen were envisioned to be for Washington.
Less surprising, but equally notable, has been the strength of the Orioles lineup. The Orioles have no regular leadoff hitter. There is no Brian Roberts, but it doesn’t seem to matter. The lineup leads the American League in home runs on the strength of the four hitters that follow: J.J. Hardy, Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and Matt Wieters. Those four Orioles are truly coming into their own and have almost as many long balls - 39 - as the Nationals’ 40 as a team.
The player who will do the most to put Baltimore in post season play is Jones. He is no 19-year old phenom and among center fielders he is neither Matt Kemp nor Josh Hamilton. But he is close and is on a pace to hit more than 50 home runs. While many may project similar feats for Bryce Harper, Jones is arriving right now, in real time.
The Nationals, by contrast, are all about pitching, and most emphatically - at least for now - their starting pitching. Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez have no parallels at the northern nexus of Route 295. Dylan Bundy may change that, but for now that is the largest disparity between the two teams.
Then there is the Aflac advantage. The simple truth is that injury has done as much as anything to define the 2012 Nationals. Without Wilson Ramos, Jayson Werth, Michael Morse and Storen, the Nationals take on the Orioles with a significant handicap. Strasburg reported tightness in his pitching arm and left the Sunday game after five innings. When will this madness end?
This pipe dream may need time to mature. And a rubber chicken Juju that has some teeth to it would certainly help. So get you gone, ghost of Nick Johnson, out dammed haint of John Patterson, we have playoffs to make, a Parkway World Series of which to dream. These games are but a hint of what is yet to come.
Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. 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.