During their first seven seasons in Washington, the Nationals were a horrendous 148 games below .500.

Fortunately for the guys with the curly W’s on their caps, the franchise that used to dominate this market, the Baltimore Orioles were nearly as atrocious, losing 139 games more than they won.

But as they reach the quarter pole of the 2012 season this weekend, as remarkable as it seems, the Nats (23-15) and the American League-leading O’s (25-14) are both on pace to reach the playoffs.

So that gives the three-game series between the teams that starts tonight at Nats Park more importance than the usual bragging rights in the “Battle of the Beltways.” For what it’s worth, Baltimore leads the rivalry 19-17 although Washington scored nine more runs while splitting the six games last season.

The fact that the Nats are now managed by Davey Johnson, who was a three-time All-Star second baseman while playing his first eight seasons for the O’s and skippered them to their last playoff appearance back in 1997, adds some spice to the weekend. That’s especially true because this will be Johnson’s first chance to strike back at Baltimore owner Peter Angelos for foolishly firing him. The O’s, 98-64 in that 1997 season, haven’t won more than 79 games in any of the 14 years since.

Fortunately for Angelos, who for years fought to prevent Washington from getting a franchise to replace the long-departed Senators, two of Johnson’s three aces, Gio Gonzalez (2.22 earned run average) and Jordan Zimmermann (2.58), pitched the last two nights. That means that Ross Detwiler (2.75) and Edwin Jackson (3.71) will take the mound for the Nats before Stephen Strasburg (2.25) seeks atonement on Sunday after getting shockingly shelled by San Diego on Tuesday.

Baltimore manager Buck Showalter will counter with veteran Jake Arrieta and newcomers Wei-Yin Chen and Jason Hammel.

Only Chen is off to a strong start. The O’s are being carried by their bats. Seven of their regulars have at least seven home runs and five have at least 18 RBI.

In contrast, first baseman Adam LaRoche (seven homers, 30 RBI, .336) is the only potent bat in the injury-riddled Nats’ lineup. Rookie phenom Bryce Harper, who had a tremendous first week after debuting on May 5, has sunk to a .227 average. LaRoche, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and center fielder Rick Ankiel have all missed time. Left fielder Michael Morse has yet to play because of a torn muscle in his back. Right fielder Jayson Werth is likely out until August with a broken left wrist and catcher Wilson Ramos is done for the year with a torn right ACL.

While the teams have reached the top of their divisions in different ways, each has displayed a knack for rallying to win in the late innings or in extra innings. Washington has come from behind to win 11 times with five walk-off victories. Baltimore has come from behind to win 12 games, six times when trailing after seven innings.

Although we Washingtonians consider Baltimoreans parochial and they think we’re snooty, we really haven’t had much of a sports rivalry. Both markets support the University of Maryland and Navy. Baltimore’s Bullets became ours in 1973 before morphing into the Wizards. Charm City has never had an NHL franchise. The Colts – who moved to Indianapolis in 1984 — and Orioles used to dominate the Redskins and Senators – who moved to Texas after the 1971 season — and the football teams only reached postseason in the same year in 1971 and 1976.

Amazingly, the Redskins and Ravens have never made the playoffs in the same season although Washington did so in 1999, 2005 and 2007 while Baltimore did in 2000, 2001, 2003, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. They will meet this season as they do every election year, but only every election year. Facing each other every four years doesn’t make for a passionate rivalry.

So we’re left with the Nats and the O’s, who play in different leagues, but still square off six times every summer. And while it’s early, this weekend’s games might actually finally mean something.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March.


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