The Washington Times - May 4, 2012, 10:51AM

Forget about who is filling the stands. Forget about the ticket initiatives and the slogans and the attendance counts. The Philadelphia Phillies come to Washington for three games that start tonight, and for the first time since the opening weekend of the 2008 season, the Nationals are the team in first place when the two meet. 

The Nationals are off to a strong start. They’re 16-9, their pitching is firing on all cylinders, their hitting is trying to weather an eye-poppingly bad injury storm. The Phillies are off to a mediocre start — at best — at 13-13, weathering their own devastating list of injuries to key players and appearing to age faster than almost anyone could have anticipated.

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Until someone dethrones the Phillies as the class of the NL East, though, they will stand as a measuring stick. That’s the way the Nationals are looking at it, the way they feel they have to look at it. Even manager Davey Johnson, who often says no one game is more important than another and keeping an even keel is what’s most important, acknowledged the weight games against Philadelphia carry.

“They all count,” Johnson said Thursday, noting the Nationals’ were in the midst of a “big” series because it was against the NL West champions from 2011 in the Diamondbacks.

“But it’s division and it’s the perennial best team in the league and it’s how you stack up,” he conceded. “So it’ll have a little more significance than just a regular game with another division team. Here’s a club that had the best record in baseball last year.

“We know if we want to win this division we’ve got to beat Philadelphia No. 1, Atlanta No. 2 and all the rest of them.”

The Nationals-Phillies “rivalry” has been percolating over the past few years but it’s always been that sort of rivalry where one team does the majority of the winning and the other side surely doesn’t like it. The Nationals took the season series from the Phillies last year, winning 10 of the 18 games the two played. That doesn’t amount to much now, of course, because the effect it had on the seasons of both teams in 2011 was little. The Nationals still went home after 161 games and the Phillies still went to the playoffs.

But, as Johnson pointed out later, regardless of how the Phillies’ April went, they’re still the team that won 102 games last year. That’s why they’ll be a good litmus test for Washington.

But what about for the Phillies? Might it be that they’re looking at the weekend the same way? The Nationals have arguably the best pitching staff in baseball, they have a 19-year-old phenom who does something jaw-dropping every night and they are looking down at the Phillies in the standings. It’s been a while since anyone truly challenged the Phillies in the NL East. Even the Braves, who were in line for the NL Wild Card last year until the season’s final day, finished the year with 13 fewer wins than Philadelphia. 

There’s a lot of baseball left to play, but if the Nationals plan on making any kind of a statement that they’re no longer planning to roll over and let the Phillies cruise to the division crown, this weekend will be a start. 

“They are definitely banged up, and so are we,” said Jayson Werth. “I think, all things considered, it’s still going to be a good test because it’s still pretty equal ground.”

Then Werth pointed out the one bonus factor for the Nationals as things lineup right now: Roy Halladay won’t pitch in the series. Cliff Lee is still out with an oblique issue. Cole Hamels is the only one of the ‘Big Three’ who’ll take the mound in Washington. And while neither Kyle Kendrick (Friday) or Vance Worley (Saturday) are pitchers to overlook, they’re no Halladay and Lee. 

The Nationals? They’re throwing Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann.

“We’ve got our horses going for us,” Werth said. “We’ll see what happens.”