Oh, Nationals. Is your run at the top already over? Because that's really disappointing if it is.
For much of the season, Washington has been the leader of the pack in the NL East. They were in first place when they played the Phillies only two weeks ago, still had their death grip on it when we last checked the standings 10 days ago, but after spending 32 days on top, the Nats suddenly find themselves 1.5 back. What happened?
After beginning the season red hot, jumping out to a 14-4 record in April, Washington is playing sub-.500 baseball since, going 10-13 over their last 23. Not as easy as the Phillies made it look the last five seasons, is it?
Meanwhile, Philadelphia's status hasn't changed much. They may have made it back to .500 -- for now -- but they remain in last place, still spinning their wheels at five games back.
Dropping two of three to Boston didn't help their cause. Cole Hamels tied for the Major League lead in with his sixth win on Friday, but Joe Blanton and Cliff Lee got roughed up over the weekend, capping the Phils' win streak at six, and destroying their momentum.
The Fightins shouldn't require any extra motivation to dust themselves off for the Nationals though. A rivalry is brewing, and Washington is the first of six straight opponents currently sporting a winning record.
vs. Washington (24-17)
The Nationals' rotation continues to stand among the best in baseball, with a 15-10 won-loss, and a 2.77 ERA -- second best in the Majors. There's no easy draw in the group of five. The Phillies have the horses to match up, but the Nats' bullpen has been strong as well.
Their Achilles heel, if you'll forgive the expression, has been run support. Washington is tied for 11th in the NL with 3.78 runs per game. And what of the Bryce Harper effect? While he's been lighting the world on fire, and the offense hasn't experienced a slight boost overall, it hasn't been enough. In 21 games with the 19 year old in the lineup, the Nats are scoring an average 4.24, compared to 3.3 without.
Washington has been measurably better at home, with a 15-8 record at Nationals Park, while just 9-9 on the road.
@ St. Louis (22-19)
This is the Phillies' first meeting with the reigning World Champions since October's heartbreaking defeat. The Cardinals have led the Central division since Opening Day, but that might not be the case by the time the the Phils arrive in town. St. Louis has lost eight of ten, including three-game sweeps by the Braves and the Dodgers, and they're 6-11 over the last 17. As you can see, they currently own just half a game over the Reds.
It's difficult to explain what's happened to the Cards, who have the most productive offense in the National League, leading the league in home runs, batting average, and on-base percentage. Suddenly they can't keep their opponents off the board, allowing six runs or more in nine of their last 10, and over 14 of their last 20. That only happened three times over the first 22 games.
Could be another slugfest for the Phillies, who allowed nine home runs in their series against the Red Sox -- eight by starting pitchers.
@ Mets (22-19)
This has revenge series written all over it. The Mets embarrassed the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park a week and a half ago when the bullpen entered a full-on meltdown. It's disappointing because all three games were there for the taking. Instead they were broomed out of their own building.
Meanwhile, New York's roller-coaster season continues. They left Philly winners of five straight, but are 3-6 since, and had lost four in a row before all of that. Offensively, the Mets have the bats to swing their way back into games, but the problem is they need to. Their pitching staff owns the second-worst ERA in the NL at 4.60, and their bullpen has overtaken the Fightins for the most awful group in baseball.
The Mets still own the Phillies in 2012 however, taking five of six -- all at CBP.
Due up: @ Miami (22-19), vs. LA Dodgers (28-13), @ Baltimore (27-15)