by David Elfin

From the moment that the former Montreal Expos were reborn as the Nats in the fall of 2004, the franchise was always looking up at the Phillies.

In 2005 and 2006, Philadelphia finished second to Atlanta in the National League East before running off five straight division titles while capturing two pennants and a World Series championship. During those seven seasons, Washington finished last five times and fourth once before finally advancing to third in 2011. That year, the Nats actually won the season series from the Phillies 10-8 after losing 70 of their 109 games from 2005-10.

Back in those days, Washington’s management, led by then-club President Stan Kasten, actually encouraged fans from the City of Brotherly Hate to invade/fill Nats Park. The reciprocity was shown when a Phillies fan allegedly intentionally vomited on a young Nats supporter at Citizen Bank Park in 2011.

While the Nats and Phillies actually split their 18 contests last year, Washington still finished a staggering 17 games ahead of Philadelphia in the division race. As badly as the Nats have played so far in 2013, at 24-23, they’re still a game ahead of the Phillies.

Tonight, the Phillies arrive on South Capitol Street for the start of a three-game series that seems a long time coming since it’s more than a quarter of the way into the season and the Nats have already played 16 games against their other NL East rivals: the Braves, Miami Marlins and New York Mets.

Washington’s newfound ace Jordan Zimmermann will pitch tonight followed by fourth starter Dan Haren and 2012 All Star Stephen Strasburg as manager Davey Johnson takes advantage of yesterday’s off day to skip injured fifth starter Ross Detwiler’s turn on Sunday.

Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel will also start with the back end of his rotation – Kyle Kendrick and rookie Jonathan Pettibone – before going on Sunday with Cole Hamels – who’s off to a staggering 1-7 start and will be forever known in the nation’s capital for throwing behind eventual Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper during their first encounter last May 7.

The Strasburg-Hamels matchup has the biggest names, but my 9-year-old cousin Daniel, who’s visiting from Connecticut to watch his heroes with the curly Ws on their caps for the first time in person, gets to see a better duel tonight between Zimmermann (7-1, 1.62 earned run average) and Kendrick (4-2, 2.82).

While Cy Young winners Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee still anchor Philadelphia’s rotation along with Hamels, they are 36 and 34, respectively. The creaky infield still includes former MVPs Ryan Howard (33) at first base and Jimmy Rollins (34) at shortstop as well as five-time All Star second baseman Chase Utley (34). New third baseman Michael Young, a seven-time American League All Star for Texas, is even older at 36.

Erik Kratz, who has been doing most of Philadelphia’s catching, didn’t debut in the majors until he was 30 and will be 33 next month. Four of the seven bats on Manuel’s bench are at least 31.

Unlike Harper, who won’t be 21 until October, none of the Phillies have to be worried about being carded.

In contrast, the Nats only have five players over 30: ex-Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth (34 and currently on the disabled list), first baseman Adam LaRoche, closer Rafael Soriano and utilityman Chad Tracy (all 33), and Haren (32).

So while Washington’s arrow is pointing up despite its current 29th rank on offense and defense, Philadelphia’s is headed in the wrong direction. The Phillies managed just two winning seasons from 1987-2002 while finishing last six times. Another baseball dark age could be underway in South Philly.

If that’s the case, it’ll be sad that the Nats and Phils were never good at the same time. Things could get ugly with the legendarily never-satisfied fans who’ve become so used to their team’s success. On the bright side, we won’t be seeing as many of the unwelcome visitors from the north in the stands at Nats Park.

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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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