There has been somewhat of a role reversal in the NL East this spring, with the long-suffering Washington Nationals in first place and the five-time defending division champion Philadelphia Phillies in fourth.
The Phillies should have seen the Nationals' emergence coming.
Stephen Strasburg looks to lead Washington to its sixth straight victory over Philadelphia on Friday night at Nationals Park in the first meeting of the season between these division rivals.
After finishing 21 1/2 games out of first and missing the playoffs for a 30th straight year last season, Washington (16-9) owns a 1 1/2-game lead over second-place Atlanta in the East. This is the latest into a season the Nationals have been in first since July 20, 2005.
The Phillies (13-13) are typically the ones atop the East, but they trail Washington by 3 1/2 games and will fall even further back if their struggles against the Nationals continue.
Washington won the final five meetings in last season's series and nine of the last 11 between these teams. The franchise hasn't won six straight games over Philadelphia since reeling off eight in a row in 1989, when the team was in Montreal.
This year's club is led by a starting rotation that boasts a major league-best 2.03 ERA, fronted by Strasburg (2-0, 1.13 ERA), who is pitching like a Cy Young Award candidate.
The right-hander, April's NL pitcher of the month, has a 0.88 WHIP, 34 strikeouts in 32 innings and easily could be 5-0. In the three starts he didn't receive a decision, he allowed two combined runs and was backed by a total of three. Strasburg permitted one run and five hits over seven innings of Saturday's 4-3, 10-inning loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, striking out nine and walking none.
That game marked top prospect Bryce Harper's major league debut.
Harper hit No. 7 in the Nationals lineup in his first four games before moving into the No. 3 spot Thursday against Arizona. The 19-year-old delivered, hitting a tiebreaking RBI double in the sixth inning, lifting the Nationals to a 2-1 victory.
"If I'm hitting two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight or nine it doesn't really matter,'' said Harper, batting .375 with four doubles and three RBIs in 16 at-bats. "It doesn't change the way I'm going to go up there and play.''
The Phillies arrive in the nation's capital after beating Atlanta 4-0 on Thursday to win for the third time in four games. Shane Victorino drove in two runs and Laynce Nix went 2 for 3 with a solo homer.
Nix, who spent last season with Washington, was 5 for 9 with two doubles and four RBIs in the Braves series, raising his average to .342 as he continues to earn playing time in the outfield and at first base.
"It's hard for me to take him out, isn't it?'' Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel asked. "He's hitting the ball hard, he's hitting homers, he's hitting doubles, he's hitting .300, and .300 hitters are hard to come by these days.''
In the series opener, Manuel will give the ball to Kyle Kendrick (0-2, 6.59), who is set to make his third start in place of the injured Cliff Lee.
Kendrick allowed three runs while striking out seven in six innings of Sunday's 5-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs, a vast improvement from getting tagged for seven runs and 11 hits in three innings of a 9-5 loss to Arizona on April 23.
The right-hander recorded a 1.50 ERA without a decision in two starts against Washington last season.
Strasburg's only career outing against Philadelphia came Aug. 21, 2010, when he gave up one run and two hits while striking out six in 4 1-3 innings before leaving with a right arm injury. Six days later, the Nationals announced he would need Tommy John surgery, forcing him to miss 12 months.