WASHINGTON - AUGUST 01: Wilson Valdez #21 of the Philadelphia Phillies slides safely into second base under the tag of Ian Desmond #6 of the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on August 1 2010 in Washington DC. The Phillies won the game 6-4. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
If the Nationals need a "statement series," this weekend's first meeting with the Phillies at Nationals Park is it.
It is no secret that the Washington Nationals have offensive problems. Their inability to get runs across the plate brings back memories of 2011, and why not? Aside from the rookie call-ups and plug-ins due to injuries, it is basically the same line up as 2011. The definition of "madness" is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results, a mindset that General Manager Mike Rizzo seems more than happy to subscribe to.
As a result, the Nationals got Clubber Lang'd by the L.A. Dodgers in a sweep and they luckily, barely, Bryce Harper-ly avoided the venomous bite of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The fans, thankfully, didn't have to suck out the poison after that series. Remarkably, the Nationals have maintained their grasp on the top spot of the NL East through it all, but it is unfortunate that these offensive revelations (although they have been fortold for awhile now) come right on the cusp of one of the more important home series they have played since the team relocated to D.C. in 2005.
At first glance, the first meeting between the Nationals and the Philadelphia Phillies in 2012 seems rather lackluster and pointless. They are two NL East rivals going in opposite directions: the Nationals are a team on the rise with its youth movement while the Phillies are on the decline as they watch their once reliable stars become fallible and their game become as shaky as Chase Utley's knees. They both start a series at Nationals Park on Friday night without some of their powerhouse players due to injuries. The Nationals lead the division while the Phillies sit in fourth. If it still wasn't so early in the season, I would compare this contest to Darth Maul fighting Jar-Jar Binks.
As a Nationals fan, it would be almost too easy to get cocky. It is strange saying that finally after so many seasons of having to endure abuse and embarrassment in the stands and standings at the hands of Philadelphia and their troupe of traveling degenerates. Yes, it would be more than easy to be sucked into the whole "Take Back The Park" thing and believe the team did everything in its power to prevent Phillies fans from buying tickets to "invade" Nationals Park. I might be the only one, but I find the whole gimmick sort of embarrassing. Yeah, it got the team's name in a bunch of papers and made COO Andy Feffer into even a bigger cartoon character than he already is, but come on-- is this how Major League teams act? Someone is making money off this farce and you have to tip the hat to the guy who concocted such a simple, but evil scheme. Will there be a lot of Phillies fans in attendance this series? I am willing to bet yes. This is America. If you have the time, the drive and the money you can do anything. If Phiilies fans want to be in D.C. spending their money, that is what they are going to do.
For the Nationals, the series this weekend against their dreaded rivals is more than trivial attendance numbers, hordes of disrespectful visitors trampling flower beds and the ridiculous debate on "whose" park it is (Look at the name on the outside of the building for the answer. End of story.) It isn't about staying in first place or gunning for the playoffs. If this weekend should mean anything to the Nationals, it should be about kicking sand in the Phillies face and beating them to dust over nine innings.
This weekend should be about making a statement on the field.
Make no mistake: just because the Phillies are without Utley and Ryan Howard does not make them any less formidable. Fourth place this early in the season means nothing. Philadelphia is still the team to beat in the NL East and if by some nightmarish chance Philly can leave D.C. with a three game sweep-- POOF. There goes that 3.5 game lead and first in the division. The Phillies have cherished a dominating record over the Nats the past few seasons and have no doubt they will be coming in with the confidence (overconfidence?) of knowing they can pound Washington into the ground.
The Nationals will not be pushovers however. They come into Friday's game with one of the youngest, hottest and hardest-throwing rotations in MLB and will pit them against the veteran Phillies rotation that has had more than its share of weak points this season. Even with injuries to Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche, the Nationals line-up is the strongest it has been in years and it is being led by a hot rookie named Bryce Harper whose competitive nature must be dying to dig in and duke it out with the East's finest.
The Nats have said they have changed the culture of baseball in Washington and are ready to stake their claim in the NL East. I can think of no better opportunity or a better team to prove it against. So forget about the Dodgers. Forget about the attendance and who is or who is not there. Pay attention to what is going on on the field. The tides of the NL East will be changed by the end of the weekend.
Let's just hope the offense doesn't leave the team on the beach.