When the five-time defending division champion Philadelphia Phillies last arrived in Washington on May 21, they trailed the surprising NL East-leading Nationals by just five games. It was just a matter of time before the big boys from just off Broad Street would take care of the upstarts from just this side of the South Capitol Street Bridge.
Tonight, the Phillies are back in town, only this time the gap between the cellar-dwellers and the frontrunners is a whopping 12-1/2 games.
After going 22-57 against Philadelphia from 2007 through last May 30, Washington is 13-4 since in the I-95 rivalry. That’s some serious Natitude.
Nats Park, which was so infamous for being filled by boorish visiting fans for the games with the Phillies that the home team’s management had to make a point of cutting off online sales to those with certain area codes and addresses, will be packed the next three nights. However, the vast majority of those in attendance will be wearing a Washington, rather than a Philadelphia shade of red, and sport curly W’s on their caps.
The mere 140 miles between the colonial capital and the current seat of government and the presence of the cities’ teams in the same divisions in baseball and in football (and for many years in basketball and hockey) has bred more than little mutual contempt.
And yet, not only have Philadelphia and Washington never reached baseball’s postseason in the same year (not so hard to imagine considering the latter has been so represented only in 1924, 1925 and 1933), it has only happened in the NFL in 1990 (when the Redskins upset the host Eagles and ended Buddy Ryan’s coaching tenure in Philadelphia) and 1992 even though the teams have combined to reach the playoffs in 31 of the other 39 most recent seasons.
The Caps have made the playoffs 23 times but have only faced the Flyers in four of those springs, just once since 1989 even though Philadelphia has missed postseason during just six times during the 37 years that Washington has been in the NHL.
The 76ers have made the playoffs 25 times and the Wizards 18 times since the NBA arrived in Washington in 1973-74, but the teams have squared off in just four springs, the last time in 1986.
Of course, there was Villanova’s stunning upset of defending national champion/Big East rival Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA men’s basketball final, but that was one of the few epic clashes in the battle between the Cheesesteak City and the Land of the Half-Smoke.
And now just as the Nats shake off seven seasons of .500 or worse – usually much worse – baseball, the Phillies are having easily their worst campaign since 2000, five years before the summer game finally returned to Washington.
Whether or not All-Star righty Steven Strasburg, solid veteran Edwin Jackson and the rising Ross Detwiler maintain Washington’s status as baseball’s best pitching staff and the red-hot Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse and the rest of the offense keep rolling over the next three day, the Nats will be well ahead of the Phillies as July turns into August and just 60 games remain on the home team’s schedule.
The Phillies and Nats meet nine more times after this series, but it’s hard to argue that after so many years of Philadelphia beatdowns that the NL East torch has been passed to the longtime doormats, the ones who are 9-1-3 in series and 25-14 overall against division foes this season.
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