The Washington Times - May 18, 2012, 12:44PM

A lot will probably be made of this weekend. For fans in the area, that’s justified. In a region that has been plagued with losing baseball for so long, the idea that the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals will meet in the annual “Battle of the Beltways” and it will actually be a meeting of consequence is an exciting prospect.

The Orioles are alone in first place in the American League East. The Nationals are a half game behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League East. So for three days now and (if this keeps up) three more days in June, the debate can rage over which team is best in the mid-atlantic.


But in the grand scheme of things, for the Nationals anyway, what follows this weekend’s series with the Orioles is far more important. Without dancing around it too much, the Nationals’ schedule is about to hit them with a ton of bricks.

From May 21 to July 1, the Nationals will play 18 games against their divisional opponents and 13 games against the Red Sox, Yankees, Rays and Blue Jays. They’ll play the Orioles again in that stretch, too and the only “breather” (so to speak anyway) in there is four games in Colorado where the Nationals are 9-16 since 2005.

Nationals manager Davey Johnson is fond of saying that no game carries more weight or meaning than any other over the course of the team’s 162-game season. But even he generally admits how important the team’s divisional games are. And while playing the AL East in interleague will surely bring a tough test, the 18 divisional games will put the Nationals through a rigorous stretch.

“Shoot, I watch them play,” Johnson said. “Obviously everybody in our division, with the exception of maybe Philadelphia has gotten off pretty good. I think it’s going to be a dogfight. I’m looking forward to it.”

For all of the talk there has been about the Nationals’ hot start, the NL East is currently the only division in baseball in which the first-place team and the last-place team are separated by no more than four games. They’re stacked together like sardines with the Nationals and Braves leading the charge, the Mets not far behind and the Marlins and Phillies separated by just a half game. 

The three games against the Orioles this weekend should bring with them a great, festive atmosphere at the ballpark and, hopefully, some competitive games between two of the best teams in baseball. But for the Nationals, what comes next carries more weight and will bring with it quite a challenge.

“I think we match up pretty good against the ballclubs in our division,” Johnson said. “We’re a lot different ballclub than we were last year. It’s going to be fun.”