The National League East was projected to be one of the best and most hotly-contested divisions in baseball this year. And so far–sorry Marlins fans–the division has not disappointed.
Three teams–the Phillies, Mets and Braves–sat atop the East at 7-4 before the start of play on Thursday, with the Nationals lagging just one game behind. And although the Braves and Mets figure to stay in contention all year long, the developing rivalry between the Phillies and the Nationals could become one of the very best in baseball.
From the intriguing one-on-one matchups to the immense level of attention and drama that came with Bryce Harper’s return to Washington, D.C., each matchup between the two clubs has the potential to be as entertaining as any around the league.
Well, of course we were going to start with Bryce. His return to Nationals Park was pure theater from the first time he stepped onto the on-deck circle, and it maintained that high level of gravitas throughout the remainder of the game.
Nationals ace Max Scherzer struck Harper out in each of his first two plate appearances, but Harper doubled in his third plate appearance and singled home a run in his fourth at-bat.
However, the moment of the night was undoubtedly a towering, two-run home run in his final plate appearance that was capped by an epic bat flip:
Harper had been classy and respectful in the buildup, thanking Washington for his seven years with the team and declaring his love for the city. But an emotional player like Harper was never going to take all of the jeers and boos lying down.
His passion and energy were on full display, and with both teams competing for a division title, each game against the Nationals should have that same level of intensity for Harper.
The same can be said for Scherzer, who is just as intense–if not moreso–than Harper. There is no question that Scherzer and his fellow rotation guys will be itching for their chance to pitch against Harper. The magnitude of his polarizing stardom is indeed that high, and his flair for the dramatic makes things that much more intriguing.
Washington’s aces against Philly’s deep lineup
For as much attention as Harper can command, the way that the two teams stack up against one another is equally intriguing. Particularly when it comes to the top three in the Nationals’ rotation going up against a loaded Phillies lineup.
Scherzer battled through five innings against Philadelphia, striking out nine and scattering seven hits. But he was also handed with a loss.
Stephen Strasburg was atrocious in his start against the Phillies on Apr. 9, giving up six runs in just four innings after a start in which he had completely dominated the New York Mets. And while Patrick Corbin has yet to make a start in the series, he will get his opportunity.
When Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin are all at the top of the game, the Nationals offer arguably the best top-three of any starting rotation in the league.
Meanwhile, the Phillies have absurdly dynamic potential up and down the entire lineup. Rhys Hoskins is developing into a legitimate star hitting behind Harper, already driving in 15 runs and hitting .357 with runners in scoring position.
Andrew McCutchen and Jean Segura have been perfect in their roles as table-setters, and Harper himself is producing in typical early-season fashion.
But there is plenty of room for improvement. Maikel Franco started red-hot, but has just four hits in his last 26 at-bats. Cesar Hernandez has been disappointing, and J.T. Realmuto has just one homer and a .675 OPS thus far.
Of course, it is still very early, and players are prone to getting hot when the weather begins to turn. However, the same can be said for the best pitchers in the league, who find their stuff as the season goes along.
And for those reasons, the Nationals and Phillies should be that much more fun to watch going forward.
The division desperately needs a rivalry
The National League East has lacked real excitement for years. The better part of this decade has been dominated by the Nationals, and there have seldom been more than two competitive teams in any given season.
The same can mostly be said for the 1990s and 2000s, when the Braves and Phillies were the dominant teams in the division. In fact, the last real rivalry was between the Phils and Pirates in the 70s and early 90s, but Pittsburgh is now in the NL Central.
For years, the East has been one of the most dormant divisions in baseball, but now it is one of the very best. As such, there needs to be a developing rivalry that can captivate audiences.
The Cubs and Cardinals have always been arch rivals, and now both teams have a reason to dislike the Brewers after Milwaukee played spoiler last season.
The Dodgers may not have a distinct rival in the NL West–and it will likely remain that way until they are unseated as division champions–but at least the Rockies are right on their heels.
Now, with a loaded division and some of the most high-profile players in all of baseball, the NL East has the potential to develop some serious rivalries.
And right at the center of it all should be the Nationals and Phillies, who have all of the drama-filled storylines and fiery personalities necessary to fuel any notable grudge match.