Nations: Beltway Series, at last?

As Major League Baseball plods toward its approximation of the regular-season’s halfway point, the All-Star break, it seems as good a time as any to dream if you’re a D.C.-area sports fan.

The Washington Nationals were a mere half-game back in the National League East division heading into Tuesday night’s Game 2 of the annual Beltway Series. Their opponent and beltway brethren, the Baltimore Orioles, entered Tuesday night with a three-game lead atop the American League East.

Beltway (World) Series? It doesn’t seem impossible, but then it’s been an idea floating around for about three seasons now.

It started in 2012, when the Nationals made their predicted rise to the top of the standings with a stacked pitching staff and a good but not great offense, and the O’s pulled off a remarkable surprise playoff appearance behind the ridiculous power hitting of first baseman Chris Davis and a group of effective if relatively unknown starting pitchers.

The O’s had to win a 1-0 play-in game (the Wild Card) against the Texas Rangers to catch up to the Nats in the divisional series, where both squads dropped hard-fought 3-2 decisions.

Hopes were so very high last year, but slow starts, persistent injuries and some inevitable regression dashed those dreaming of a all mid-Atlantic fall classic. The Nationals, a popular preseason choice to win the World Series, missed the playoffs with a second-place finish in the NL East, while the O’s dropped to third in the AL East and also missed the postseason.

This season has been something of a cross between the previous two. Expectations were high once again for the Nats, who haven’t quite lived up to them so far as they’ve again dealt with some significant injuries including a lengthy stretch without star outfielder Bryce Harper.

Baltimore wasn’t as lightly dismissed as before the 2012 campaign, but with the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox, the dangerous Tampa Bay Rays and another dizzying spending spree by the New York Yankees — not to mention the Toronto Blue Jays, everyone’s darling pick for 2013 — the path to the playoffs didn’t look any too promising for the O’s.

Yet here they are, both of them in the thick of divisional battles. Could this quick three-game series at Nationals Park just possibly be a preview of late October … or is it early November now?

There’s still lot’s of baseball to be played, we are told day after day. And that’s true. There are the maddening slumps and exhilarating streaks, the crushing injuries and jaw-dropping trades still to come.

But since we’re dreaming, I’ll take the liberty of imagining how this might play out. As for a Beltway Series, I just don’t see it, not as these teams are constructed right now.

I like the Nats just fine, by the way. First-year manager Matt Williams finally has his optimal lineup in place for the first time since early April, and Washington is still in prime position to challenge the Atlanta Braves for the NL East title. With a rotation fronted by dominating starters like Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, plus a lineup which goes much deeper than Harper, this Nationals team is one I think you have to consider a World Series champion contender once again.

I’m still not sold on the O’s. Baltimore’s recent red-hot streak has played well in a depressed AL East, but the Rays in particular are beginning to show signs of life (if they don’t throw in the towel and deal ace left-hander David Price, that is). The Yankees are going to do what the Yankees do — cast about for every big-name player they can add for one final stretch run with Derek Jeter still in pinstripes. Sometimes it works, sometimes not so much, but you can count on the Yanks to never stand pat. Ice-cold Toronto has been the opposite of Baltimore, but the Jays still have loads of talent and are capable of turning things around. The cellar-dweller Red Sox, 10 games out now, don’t look so promising but Boston is far from hopeless.

Basically, it’s the same scenario for these two franchises. The Nats have one team to beat in the East — the Braves, big surprise — while the O’s have to contend with just about everyone in their division. Maybe both franchises will once again sail through to the postseason, maybe neither, but probably at least one of them.

It might not be the long-awaited Beltway Series, but baseball in October is looking promising once more.

Contact staff writer Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com