- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 22, 2011

BALTIMORE — At least the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles have each other. It’s been years since either franchise had a whiff of a pennant race, but they can get together twice a year for a three-game set and, well, pretend it’s for the Chesapeake Bay championship.

Sunday at Camden Yards, before a Little Leaguer-infested crowd of 33,626, the Orioles beat the Nationals 2-1 to take the series by the same margin. It was Danny Espinosa’s first exposure to interleague play and, except for the outcome, the Nats second baseman rather liked it.

“A different kind of baseball,” he said, “but I enjoyed it a lot.”

The teams will resume hostilities next month at Nationals Park, the same weekend the U.S. Open is being contested at Congressional (June 17-19). Now there’s a lovely bit of scheduling. Couldn’t somebody - anybody - have arranged it so that Jayson Werth didn’t have to go head-to-head with Charl Schwartzel?

But back to this Baltimore-Washington thing. It’s amazing, given the rivalry between the two metropolises, how seldom their teams have met in a game that really mattered - in football, baseball or even in the early days of pro basketball (when the Baltimore Bullets and Washington Capitols exchanged shoves).

Think about it. The Orioles and Senators never had any big showdowns because the Senators - both first and second generation - generally were wretched. As for the Colts and Redskins, they were almost never good at the same time. When the Colts were winning titles during the Johnny Unitas years, the Redskins were struggling; and when the were Redskins going to Super Bowls during the George Allen and early Joe Gibbs years, the Colts were in decline.

It’s been the same, in the past decade, with the Ravens, Redskins, Orioles and Nationals. Can you recall a single memorable Ravens-Redskins game? (Of course not, because there haven’t been any.)

The same goes for the O’s and Nats. Part of the reason is that, since the Expansion Senators left for Texas, Baltimore and Washington teams haven’t been in the same league, never mind the same division. So they don’t cross paths nearly as much as they used to. (The Orioles and Senators played as many as 22 times a year in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and the Redskins and Colts met every season from 1953 to ‘67.)

Another part of the reason, though, is that one or both clubs usually have been crummy. Let’s face it, it takes a lot of juice out of a rivalry - or should we call it a would-be rivalry? - when one side is the American League East cellar (for the fifth straight season) and the other is the National League East cellar (also for the fifth straight season).

That said, the Nationals and Orioles engaged in a well-pitched, well-played game Sunday. Heck, the way it began, you would have thought it was the seventh game of the World Series. The first batter, Nats center fielder Roger Bernadina, dropped a textbook bunt and outran the throw to first, but umpire Todd Tichenor called him out for stepping on the plate. This brought Jim Riggleman out to expound on the matter, and by the time he was done expounding he’d been ejected.

“First time I’ve ever been called for it,” Bernadina said afterward.

To which Riggleman added: “The call was right; it was just a call you never see made.”

Imagine if that had happened in a game of consequence. Imagine if the Nationals and O’s had been fighting for first place instead of trying to escape from last. The game would have become known forevermore as The Day Riggleman Didn’t Make It to the Second Batter.

Six innings later, the Nationals’ Jordan Zimmermann was cruising along with a two-hitter - and had Vladimir Guerrero 0-2 - when, as he put it, “I tried to bounce a curveball.” Unfortunately for him, his waste pitch wasn’t quite wasteful enough; certainly not for the free-swinging Guerrero, who once hit a ball on the short hop.

When Zimmermann’s curve stayed off the ground, Vlady lined it into the left-field stands to turn a 1-0 Nats lead into a 2-1 Orioles win. Imagine if that had happened in a game of consequence. Baltimore kids would have spent the next decade reenacting it in their backyards with a wiffle ball.

So, yeah, it was just another game in May between two clubs that seem headed nowhere. But it won’t always be that way between the Orioles and Nationals, will it? As a wise man once said, “Proximity seems necessary for real enmity” in sports - and Baltimore and Washington have proximity and enmity in abundance. Now the O’s and Nats just have to hold up their end of the bargain and find a few more players. Then these six games every summer will really be fun.

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