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Four Months into Season, First-Place Nationals Host Last-Place Phillies: A Fan’s View

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With a full two months remaining in the season, it's too soon for the Washington Nationals to think about their surprising division lead or -- dare I say it -- a playoff appearance. But with four months of work to reflect on, there's no question that the reversal of fortunes of the Nationals and the Philadelphia Phillies is a leading story of the 2012 season.

As the Phils pull into D.C. for a three-game series, the upstart Nats sit atop the NL East and are looking stronger and stronger. And the Phillies -- the five-time defending NL East champions -- are floundering in last place and might just fade into irrelevance if they don't put up a fight this week at Nationals Park.

Washington Nationals vs. Philadelphia Phillies

Tuesday, July 31, 7:05 p.m. EDT

Stephen Strasburg (11-4, 2.76) vs. Cliff Lee (1-6. 3.95)

Wednesday, August 1, 7:05 p.m. EDT

Edwin Jackson (6-6, 3.52) vs. Vance Worley (5-6, 3.88)

Thursday, August 2, 7:05 p.m. EDT

Ross Detwiler (5-4, 3.24) vs. Cole Hamels (11-5, 3.31)

Season Series: The Nationals are 4-2 this season against the Phillies, winning 2-of-3 in each of two series in the first half. The division foes will play a total of 18 games.

The Matchup

The Nationals return home after a successful roadtrip, taking 6-of-7 against the Mets and Brewers. Overall, they've won eight of their last nine games and continue to sit in first place in the NL East, with only the Atlanta Braves within a dozen games in the standings. The big bats of Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse have been waking up, covering for an offense that misses Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond. The pitching staff leads the majors with a 3.25 ERA.

The Phillies have been slogging through a disastrous season. The team had a glimmer of hope as recently as last week, as Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay were all back from the DL, and a four-game winning streak included several rousing comebacks. But a dismal three-game sweep in Atlanta over the weekend halted any momentum, and the Phils are now 16 and a half games out. The line-up may change as we hit the trade deadline, but for now the Phils' struggling offense is relying on Carlos Ruiz and Hunter Pence. The team's pitching -- both the starters and the bullpen -- has been a disappointment.

The Outlook

Both teams can justifiably complain about suffering unfair shares of injuries this year, but their responses couldn't be more different. While the Nats have had clutch hitting, solid fielding, strong starting pitching, and a surprisingly solid bullpen, the experienced Phillies have stumbled in all of the same categories. Perhaps the only hope remaining for the Phillies is that they have a lot of face-to-face opportunities remaining to pick up ground on the first-place Nats -- the teams meet 12 times in the final two-plus months.

The Phillies won't have to face Gio Gonzalez or Jordan Zimmermann, but the Nats throw out excellent starting pitching every night, beginning this series with Strasburg. Meanwhile, the Phillies don't know what they're getting from their vaunted rotation on any day. Cliff Lee seems to have lost his edge after suffering a long run of tough luck, and Vance Worley has been terribly inconsistent. The team recently resigned Cole Hamels to a longterm deal, but he immediately had one of the worst outings of his career in Atlanta. Hamels was the winning pitcher in each of the Phillies' two wins this season against the Nats.

SOURCES:

MLB.com: Probable Pitchers

Yahoo! Sports: MLB Stats

KW Rosenfeld is a lifelong baseball fan who visited every major league ballpark in the summer of 1991. A longtime resident of Northern Virginia, he's still thankful that baseball has returned to D.C.

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