Since returning to Washington, D.C., in 2005, the Nationals have never had a true rival.
MLB’s marketing team has tried to push the Battle of the Beltway between Washington and the Baltimore Orioles as a local rivalry, but fans have just never really engaged in the hype.
In the NL East, the Miami Marlins have just been so bad that Nats fans have never had the chance to root against them and the New York Mets have consistently battled injuries to the point where they’re often not taken very seriously.
The closest thing the Nats have had to division rivals are the Atlanta Braves. There’s been some drama, like when Justin Upton held his hands up in the air on Opening Day in 2014 because an Ian Desmond inside-the-park home run was “lodged” under the padding along the left field wall, and that one time Bryce Harper didn’t “respect the A” and drew the rage of the Atlanta faithful.
Yet while Ronald Acuña Jr. and Juan Soto’s 1-2 finish in NL Rookie of the Year voting last year will still make matchups between the two teams worth watching, there’s been something missing in this division rivalry.
The Nationals are 72-60 against the Braves since the former rose to contention in 2012, winning the season series four out of those seven years. Atlanta underwent a rebuild that sent it to the basement of the NL East for four seasons and as a result, the two teams have only both finished above .500 three times and each made the playoffs in the same season once.
That leaves the Philadelphia Phillies, who up until this year really didn’t present themselves as a potential rival to the Nationals either. The last time the Phillies had a positive winning percentage by season’s end was 2011, meaning the two teams have never contended for a division title at the same time.
But four games into the Phillies and Nationals’ 2019 season series, there’s already something different about these games — and they have all the important components of a good rivalry.
There’s the villain: Bryce Harper, who left his hometown team and signed a monster deal with a division foe knowing full well he’d be facing Washington 19 times a season for the next 13 years.
There’s the excitement: The two teams have combined to hit 17 homers already, one of which resulted in a walk-off and another which sent a game into extra innings.
There are the personalities: Harper may have already created a handshake with everyone in Philadelphia from Rhys Hoskins to the groundskeepers, but Soto and Victor Robles showed last night they can have just as much fun.
There are the implications: Both clubs have their sights set on winning the division and every game has had a playoff atmosphere.
As much as Stephen Strasburg might try say Harper is just “another hitter” or Phillies fans will insist that Nats fans aren’t mean enough, the chorus of boos that rained down on the former NL MVP in his return to D.C. set the tone early for this matchup.
The Nationals and Braves haven’t squared off yet this season — their first game won’t be until May 28 — so there’s still time for that rivalry to further unfold as well.
Yet the presence of Harper in Philadelphia coupled with the fact that the two ballparks are only two and a half hours apart sets the stage for some must-see baseball. With both clubs built for the future, this might only be the start of a long and bitter rivalry.