WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 20: The Washington Nationals play against the Baltimore Orioles during interleague play at Nationals Park on May 20, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
120,929 fans turned out for this weekend's Battle of the Beltway series between the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles. This time, it meant something.
There was no Baltimore Orioles fan invasion. They're already here. They live among us. They're living next door. They're walking the streets of Washington, D.C. in their Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken and Nick Markakis jerseys. Some of them have been here for years, decades, cheering for the closest major league team during baseball's three decade absence from the nation's capital. Not all of them abandoned their allegiance to the O's upon baseball's return to D.C. That person next to you on the Metro could be an Orioles fan. That girl or guy you're flirting with at the bar. Your co-worker. That fan in the seat next to you in Nationals Park...
There was no marketing campaign designed around the idea of taking back the home field advantage from the Nats' nearest neighbors to the north like there was when Philadelphia's fans "invaded" Nationals Park two weeks back. There was, however, plenty of black and orange in the stands, there were louder than usual "O's" during the national anthem in all three games this weekend, and for the first time in years, there was a 1st place Orioles team on the field, playing a second-place Nationals team in games that seemed to finally have some significance aside from regional bragging rights.
The Nationals entered the weekend series with a 23-15 record in second place in the NL East a .5 game behind the Atlanta Braves. The Baltimore Orioles, who might be the biggest surprise in baseball so far this season, started the series in the midst of a three-game win streak with a 25-14 record and a 1.0 game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL East.
"It's kind of fun it actually means something for the first time pretty much since I've played here I guess you could say," Ryan Zimmerman explained in an appearance on ESPN's The Scott Van Pelt Show on Friday afternoon. "But it's good for the cities. It's good for both fanbases. Obviously the Orioles' fanbase has been around for a long time, and our fanbase is fairly new, but they're both very good fanbases and we look forward to [continuing to grow]."
"To be honest with you," the Nationals' first 1st Round pick said, "The first few years here it was way more of [their fans]. It's kind of evened out, even more our fans now. Up there it's still their fans. But it's one of those kind of dueling fanbases where I wouldn't say it's very hostile, it's more of a, I don't know, it's friendly rivalry I guess you could say. But it's fun, it definitely makes it interesting now that we're both good."
In 2006, according to Baseball-Reference's attendance figures, there were a total of 94,974 fans in attendance for the three-game inaugural Battle of the Beltway series. 82,317 fans watched the Nats and O's in 2007. The '08 series drew 115,133 fans. 85,269 fans watched the Orioles and Nats in '09. 85,203 in 2010. 107,615 fans turned out in 2011. This year, 36,680 turned out for Friday night's game, 42,331 on Saturday, which combined with Sunday's announced crowd of 41,918 for a Battle of the Beltways high of 120,929 fans in Nationals Park for the three game series. The "Take Back the Park" series with the Phillies this year drew 106,931. The O's and Nats only play six times each year, so there's not as much of a heated rivalry, but clearly the fans were interested in seeing two of the best teams the Mid-Atlantic region has had in years go head-to-head.
Nats' skipper Davey Johnson told reporters on Friday afternoon that the series was a big one for the Nationals, and not just because of his own personal history with the Orioles franchise. "I love coming back and playing Baltimore," the one-time Orioles' player and manager said, "I spent so many years as a player [with the Orioles], and I mean, I picked them when I signed, when I could have signed with any other team. So, I've always followed the Orioles and whatever was going on with them ever since I was a teenager, and that's a long time."
"But I'm really happy that they're playing great," Johnson continued, "[They're] on top of their division, it's a tough division. We're getting ready to go in our division [with Philadelphia] right after we finish with them, so I think it's only perfect that we tune up hopefully on the Orioles." It didn't exactly work out that way, the Orioles took two of three, winning game one in extra innings thanks to a strong start by right-hander Jake Arrieta and an 11th inning HR by Markakis. On Saturday the O's jumped on Ross Detwiler's fastball early and hung on for a victory in spite of the Nationals battling back from a 6-0 deficit to make it a tight one-run game. The Nationals salvaged a win on Sunday, with Stephen Strasburg throwing five strong innings and hitting his first MLB HR as the Nats battled back from down 3-0 to claim a 9-3 victory.
It didn't turn out exactly as Davey Johnson had hoped though, but as he told reporters Sunday night, he was happy to get the win in the series finale. "I think it's real important," Johnson said, "The Orioles are playing as good as any team in baseball right now. And they beat us a couple ballgames and they owed us something, and to come back and score nine runs against their pitching staff says a lot. My guys over there have a lot of confidence and that rally that we had [Saturday night] when were six down did a lot for us. And I like the way the guys were swinging, it was a big win though, shoot."
The series played out mostly without incident, no HBP hit to teach Bryce Harper a lesson, no bench clearing brawls, injured catchers or hard slides at any of the bases, but Johnson did manage to plant a little seed of a rivalry with a throw-away comment at the end of Friday's post game press conference, when he raised a question about the way O's right-hander Jake Arrieta was licking the fingers of his pitching hand on the mound. "[Arrieta] made some good pitches," Johnson said, "At certain times we took fastballs right there. He had a little slider and decent curve ball. I complained early on because he'd go to his mouth two or three times and I didn't see a real good wipe. I wasn't accusing him of throwing a splitter, but I said, I'd like to see a better wipe. I didn't realize he was that fidgety, he's got all kinds of moves out there..."
Fairly innocuous, right? But then... on Sunday morning, Arrieta responded wryly via Twitter:
Workin on my spitter in the pen today..— Jake Arrieta (@JArrieta34) May 20, 2012
Real bitter rivalries have started over less.