The Phillies are in the midst of playing a crucial string of division opponents, last week against the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals and this week against the NY Mets. Now most of the time games in early May don’t mean much but with the way the division standings currently are these games could be huge come September. Every game so far during this stretch has been full of drama and excitement and it really got me thinking just who is the Phillies biggest division rival right now?

During the Phillies recent run of success over the past 5 years they’ve pretty much owned the National League East. The Marlins and Nationals for the most part have been cellar dwellers in the division. The Mets haven’t been good since 07 when they blew the division lead to the Phillies on the last game of the season. The Braves have probably been the most competitive with the Phillies during the past 5 seasons but have eventually found a way to die off towards the end of the season. In a way the Phillies haven’t had a healthy, competitive, division rivalry during this era of baseball because they’ve been so much better than the rest of the division. That can be a good thing but also quite boring for fans.

Rivalries are fun and exciting for everyone involved. Every other team in Philly seems to have that division rival that we all love to hate. A healthy dose of rivalry hate exists all over the Delaware Valley for the NY Giants and the Dallas Cowboys. The 76ers have always had a strong rivalry with the Boston Celtics. The Flyers currently have the premier rivalry in the NHL with the Penguins and another strong rivalry with the Devils and Rangers. The reason the healthy rivalry exists with all of these teams isn’t so much because of natural geographic location and the fact they play within our division but also because these teams are good and compete with our teams year in and year out.

For the Phillies no team in the NL East has been strong enough to really push them. When the Mets were good prior to 07 I can recall attending Phillies Mets games and feeling a great deal of intensity in Citizens Bank Park. Sure today Met fans can still be found traveling down to Philly for games but it was nothing like when the Mets actually were competing for a division title every season during the early 2000’s. I’ve said this to Met fans before but I for one actually enjoy when they are a good team. Anytime NY and Philly play against each other it’s a game that should matter to everyone involved but the decline of the Mets over recent years has provided none of the excitement that match up used to entail.

Enter the Washington Nationals. I’ve been saying for a few seasons now the Nationals could be the team that eventually steps up to give us a legitimate baseball rivalry in Philly and it appears after this past weekend they are the biggest rival. Geographically it makes sense. Philly fans can hop on a train to D.C or take a short 3 hour drive to the ball park so both fan bases are able to visit the other teams park.

The Nationals have been bad throughout most of their existence so while we’ve been up here in Philly competing for a World Series year after year they’ve been stockpiling top talent in the draft every season and that talent is finally starting to arrive for them. Guys like 19 year old stud Bryce Harper and pitcher Stephen Strausberg have arrived to the big leagues ready to enter the spotlight. These guys along with the other young talent on the Washington roster will be around for many years competing with our Phillies. Add in former Phillies great Jayson Werth, now in his second season as a National, and you have a group players that are easily unlikable to Philly fans. Werth broke his wrist over the weekend and actually proclaimed that because Philly fans in attendance booed him while getting up from his injury they’ll never see the Phillies walk down Broad Street again for a parade.

The Werth proclamation is only the tip of the iceberg between these two clubs. The Nationals went as far as promoting a “take back the park” campaign this past weekend at Nationals park (or as it was called last weekend Natitude Park). The front office for Washington made a statement by not selling tickets to fans outside the Maryland, Virginia, and DC area. Philly fans took this as a challenge and made an extra effort to make it down to the ball park over the weekend. I had an opportunity to attend a Philles/Nationals game in D.C. last season and I can honestly say it felt like a Phillies home game and so far reports from fans who were in attendance last weekend state it was more of the same at Nationals Park or what we call “Citizens Bank Park South”.

Then on Sunday Night Baseball in front of a national audience Cole Hamels stepped up to the mound and officially put this rivalry on the map when he purposely hit Bryce Harper during his first at bat of the game. The Nationals fired back by throwing at Hamels when he came to the plate. No benches cleared but you can bet the line has been drawn in the sand and rivalry baseball is now official between the Phillies and Nationals. Hamels will serve a 5 game suspension because he admitted he purposely threw at Harper. I applaud Hamels for admitting his intent. The Phillies could use a little edge and they needed to make a statement to put the young Nationals in their place.

Mark your calendars the Washington Nationals will be in town for their first visit of the season May 21-23 (wow can’t believe I just said that). Believe it or not folk’s yes the Washington Nationals are the biggest rival to our Phillies. Young talent vs proven veterans will be a non-stop battle all season long so sit back and enjoy the show.