Nationals vs. Phillies: The Upside-Down National League East

Carlos Ruiz of the Philadelphia Phillies tags Danny Espinosa of the Washington Nationals out at home plate at Nationals Park in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

The NL East standings don't look quite right, given the results of the last five years. The Phillies have a new rival for division supremacy, and they'll meet up with them this week.

For the last five years, the Philadelphia Phillies have been NL East champions; they've done it both with outstanding pitching and powerful hitting.

With several of those powerful hitters injured, the Phillies have struggled in 2012, though they recently won six in a row before losing the final two games of their series with the Red Sox to end the weekend at .500.

In the upside-down NL East, that currently lands them in last place. While the Atlanta Braves -- who have been contenders the last couple of years -- hold down first place as of Monday morning, the up-and-coming Washington Nationals stand just 1½ games behind Atlanta coming into Monday's action. The Marlins, expected to contend after spending lots of Jeff Loria's money this past winter, have struggled, though they are now over .500.

The Mets, you ask? Well, they have the same record as the Marlins after Sunday's action, but with a -31 run differential, would you expect that to continue? Me neither.

So eyes on this division, then, will be focused on the commencement of a three-game series between the Nats and Phillies in Philadelphia. These teams are starting to have a history, from the Nats' attempt to "take back their park" and not sell tickets to Phillies fans, to the Cole Hamels/Bryce Harper kerfuffle when the teams met in Washington two weeks ago. The Nationals won two of the three games; the two clubs will meet 15 more times this year, beginning Monday night.

Washington's Gio Gonzalez will pitch against Philadelphia's Kyle Kendrick on Monday; Tuesday's matchup features the Phillies' Roy Halladay and the Nationals' Jordan Zimmermann.

The most interesting game of the three should come up on Wednesday, when Hamels is scheduled to face Washington's Edwin Jackson. Will the Nats retaliate against Hamels for the statements he made after the game in Washington, for which he got a five-game suspension (ridiculous, because that doesn't really make a starting pitcher miss any time. If you want to make a starting pitcher miss time, the suspension has to be at least nine games)? Umpires might put a stop to any beanball ideas before they start:

Chances are, the on-field portion of this episode is over. It's more than likely that both dugouts will be warned before the first pitch and any infraction henceforth will result in immediate ejections. If a player is hit with a pitch, say goodbye to the pitcher and his manager. With these games carrying significant weight for both teams, it'd be a foolish undertaking.

That's really the way these games should be played. Hard-nosed, but clean. There's a budding strong rivalry between these teams, located just 135 miles apart via I-95. And with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, it's the Nats with the young stars that could put them at the top of the NL East heap this year and maybe for several years to come.

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