Your local baseball heroes return to Nats Park tonight, having split a series in Miami, their first after the All-Star break.

Taking two of four from the Marlins left division-leading Washington 18-11 against its National League East rivals, whom they continue to face during their next three series, encompassing 10 games. Then after a quartet of contests at Milwaukee, the Nats return to divisional play with seven more games against the defending NL East champion Phillies and the Marlins.

At that point, it will be August 6 and Washington will have played 46 of 108 games within the division. And yet nearly half of the remaining 54 games (26) will also be against the NL East.

Division games, other than such ancient rivalries as Yankees-Red Sox and Dodgers-Giants aren’t as hyped in baseball as they are in football. There’s certainly more bad blood between the teams and the fans in such NFL battles as Steelers-Ravens and Redskins-Cowboys than in the duels between baseball’s Cardinals and Cubs, who have been going at it since the 19th century.

But since the NFL went from six to eight divisions in 2002, only six of 16 games are played against each team’s fiercest rivals. That’s 37.5 percent compared to 72 of 162 games, 44.4 percent, that the Nats play each summer in the NL East. So these baseball games mean so much.

Washington’s surprising rise to top of the division was fueled in no small part by its 16-9 mark in NL East play before the All-Star break. And the Phillies have crashed from five straight division titles to the basement – trailing the Nats by a whopping 13 games — largely because of their ugly 11-22 NL East record, which includes losing marks against each of the other members.

The New York Mets, whom the Nats play host to the next three days, have an 18-15 division record but have fallen six games behind the Nats after being swept over the weekend by Atlanta. The trio of victories improved the Braves to 15-13 in the NL East and put them just two and a half games behind the front-running Nats. The Marlins, 14-15 in the division, are nine games back.

Washington is 6-2 against Atlanta, 4-2 against both New York and Philadelphia and 4-5 against Miami. Compare that success in the division to last season’s 36-36 NL East mark (its only non-losing record against its rivals) in a year when the Nats wound up 80-81 or 2010 when the guys with the curly W’s on their caps finished last at 69-93 while going 30-42 in the division.

Other than a three-game series at the San Francisco Giants that starts Aug. 13 and a four-game set with the visiting St. Louis Cardinals that begins 17 days later, the Mets and the Braves are the only opponents the Nats face over the next two months who currently have winning records. So if Washington can continue to win more than its share against New York and Atlanta, its chances of heading into the home stretch still leading the NL East are pretty strong.

It has taken seven-plus years, but third baseman Ryan Zimmerman — the last link to the original Washington campaign — and the rest of the Nats have learned their lesson. Win your division games and the rest of the season will take care of itself.

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. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.


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