WASHINGTON - The Washington Nationals are finding out the difficulties that come with earning front-runner status. A trendy preseason pick to win the World Series, the Nationals (25-23) are just two games ahead of the Phillies after Friday's 5-2 win at Nationals Park.
And we all know the struggles the Phillies have endured.
Friday's game was the first of 19 between the teams this season. Each team has faced similar problems - injuries, an ace pitcher struggling for wins, and an inconsistent offense.
Yet the Nationals also have discovered the difference between being a perceived front-runner and living up to that status.
The Nationals, the former Montreal Expos, played their first season in Washington in 2005. Last year's 98-64 record marked the Nationals' first winning season and a breakthrough campaign that saw them snap the Phillies' five-year title streak in the National League East.
So with much of the nucleus returning, and key additions such as centerfielder Denard Span, closer Rafael Soriano, and righthander Dan Haren, the consensus was that a triple-digit win total was possible.
So could this simply be a team that has been smothered by such high expectations?
"I don't think we really think about it that much, but it is obviously different than anything we have ever experienced before," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said before Friday's game. "So you can't completely discount it."
Yet he isn't putting that much stock into it.
"To say we come in here every day and say we need to win because we're supposed to be in the World Series is a little bit of a stretch," Zimmerman said.
While the Phillies have been no offensive machine, the Nationals make them look downright lethal.
The Nationals entered the game next-to-last in the National League in batting average (.222) and on-base percentage (.289), and third-to-last in runs (159).
According to veteran Nationals manager Davey Johnson, the league has caught up to the hitters. Now it is the Nationals' turn.
"You do have to make adjustments at this level, and a lot of times it is hard for players to make the adjustments the second year out," Johnson said.
As the Phillies' Cole Hamels has struggled with a 1-7 record, so has Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg, who is 2-5, but his 2.66 ERA is a better indication of his performance.
Like the Phillies, injuries have hurt the Nationals.
On Friday, Washington revealed that infielder Danny Espinosa has a broken bone in his wrist. Former Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth is out with a hamstring injury that Johnson says may keep him out for another two weeks.
The most consistent hitter has been 20-year-old Bryce Harper, the NL rookie of the year who hasn't suffered from the sophomore jinx, having entered Friday with 12 home runs, 23 RBIs, and a .995 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
To a man, the Nationals feel that it will only be a matter of time until they take off.
"It's about us trying to find our rhythm," said lefthander Gio Gonzalez, who is 3-2 with a 3.66 ERA.
And it's also about dealing with heightened expectations.