While most - if not all - previous meetings between the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals haven't had much significance, this year's Beltway series has all the makings of a heavyweight showdown.
With both teams surprisingly very much in contention, the Adam Jones-led Orioles open a three-game set with the Nationals looking to extend their longest road winning streak in 13 seasons Friday night.
After 14 consecutive losing campaigns, Baltimore (25-14) enters the weekend atop the AL East thanks in large part to an impressive power display. The Orioles have belted a major league-leading 61 homers - equaling their total through 62 games in 2011.
Washington (23-15), which finished third in the NL East last year after coming in fourth or fifth in each of the previous eight seasons, has also been formidable. Leading the majors with a 2.94 ERA, the Nationals have held on to the division lead for much of the season but currently sit one-half game behind Atlanta.
"As far as the Orioles go, both teams are climbing and still getting better," Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman told MLB.com. "In previous years, it was tough to be a Nationals fan and an Orioles fan, so it's nice to see both teams winning, and people in this area rooting for them."
The Nationals and Orioles split six games in 2011, with each club taking two of three at home. Baltimore, 25-26 all-time in this series, hasn't experienced much road success against the NL of late, dropping 15 of 21.
"The bottom line is, if it's important to our fans, it's important to us," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "Initially, we are just busy trying to prepare three starting pitchers to play offense.
"We all know, this type of thing, that it's obviously advantage to the National League team, they've got people (that) are going to be asked in our ballpark to do what they do all the time. But they are asking a lot of people (on our club) to do something they haven't done before, and I don't think it's particularly fair."
Coming off their third straight win overall and a two-game sweep at Kansas City, the Orioles have won seven in a row in opposing ballparks - their longest road winning streak since a 10-game run Aug. 29-Sept. 24, 1999. Baltimore took Thursday's series finale 5-3 behind six solid innings from Brian Matusz and Jones' third homer in as many days.
The center fielder has hit seven of his team-leading 13 homers over his last 13 games.
"Jones is having a great year and we're proud of him," Showalter added. "He doesn't ever give in. You always feel that if he struggles, somebody is going to pay down the line. He's a very competitive young man."
Batting .389 with five homers and 17 RBIs in 24 career games against Washington, Jones is 3 for 14 with one home run against Nationals scheduled starter Edwin Jackson (1-1, 3.71 ERA).
Jackson, who's gone 0-1 with a 4.25 ERA over his last five starts, yielded three runs and five hits over five innings of Sunday's 9-6 walk-off loss at Cincinnati.
The right-hander is 5-0 with a 2.68 ERA in his last eight outings versus the Orioles, the most recent of which came while with the Chicago White Sox in August 2010.
Jackson will be opposed by Jake Arrieta (2-4, 5.21), who's gone 1-4 over his last five outings. Aside from throwing eight innings of five-hit ball during a 5-0 victory at Yankee Stadium on May 2, Arrieta has compiled a 9.90 ERA over those other four starts.
The right-hander surrendered a season-worst seven runs and a career-high 10 hits over just 3 2-3 innings of Sunday's 9-8 loss to Tampa Bay.
"Really the only thing I take away from it is, just I got to get the ball down," Arrieta said.
Arrieta has struggled against Washington, giving up a combined 12 runs over two starts spanning just eight innings.
The Nationals lost 5-3 to Pittsburgh on Thursday, splitting a two-game set. Washington hasn't dropped back-to-back home games since Sept. 16-17.
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