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Rise of Orioles, Nationals Has Changed Baseball in the East

Anthony Witrado@@awitradoFeatured ColumnistSeptember 16, 2014

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For so long it was the same trio of franchises bullying their way into perennial October positions. This happened for two decades, and other teams hardly ever had anything to say about it.

The Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox took to dominating their respective East divisions from the mid-1990s through last season. And the supremacy was virtually exclusive to those three with rare exception.

That is all changing now, and Beltway baseball is to thank for breaking the trio’s chokehold on the American and National League East divisions.

Orioles and Nationals win. An all-Beltway World Series remains as possible as any combination.

— Dave Brown (@AnswerDave) September 16, 2014

The Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles lead their respective NL and AL Easts by big margins and can clinch both titles as early as Tuesday. And with two weeks to set up their rotations and get ailing players some rest before the games really start to count again, a Beltway World Series has gone from a dream to a serious reality.

This Mid-Atlantic utopia could start early next month if both teams end up with home-field advantages in the Division Series, which they both currently have by holding one of the two best records in their leagues. It is possible that Nationals Park and Camden Yards could host four postseason games from Oct. 2-4, with both venues being live Oct. 3. 

As Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post wrote Monday: “The Nationals’ and Orioles’ dual excellence, then, could lead to an early-October extravaganza, a weekend of baseball unlike any the region has experienced.”

That is because the Braves, Yankees and Red Sox had both divisions in their clutches for seemingly the entire time since baseball went to six divisions in 1994—there were no divisions winners that first season because of the strike. Starting in 1995, the Braves won 11 consecutive NL East championships, and they won their 12th last season.

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That run, together with a combined 16 division titles for the Yankees and Red Sox, means that trio has won 28 of a possible 38 division championships since 1995, and there has not been a single postseason in that time that didn’t feature at least one of those clubs. Together they won nine combined World Series titles.

This season, unless something miraculous happens between now and Sept. 28, will be the first time since 1989 that not one of those clubs is in the playoffs.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter was there for the start of that run as manager of the Yankees in 1995.

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

“There’s no sadder time than the end of a baseball season when you’re not in it,” Showalter said, via Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com. “And there’s no more exhilarating time than when you’re in the hunt in late September. I’ve been on both sides of it.” 

The Orioles and Nationals both made the playoffs in 2012, but at that time they were both seen as upstart clubs. Because the Nationals were without ace Stephen Strasburg—he was shut down by the organization because of an innings limit—and the Orioles didn’t have the pitching to sustain a real run, they weren’t seen as serious threats and both were eliminated before the League Championship Series. 

This time things are vastly different. 

“I guess you could say that we kind of expect it a little more now,” Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche told Kilgore. “Two years ago, it was almost like – I don’t know if you’d call it a shock. But it was like, ‘Wow, we must be pretty good.’ Now, I think we’re a pretty established team.”

The Nationals are healthy and Strasburg, after some scuffles during the season, is pitching like one of the best in the league. The Orioles are pitching just enough to take advantage of a shutdown bullpen, and their prodigious power is a threat to any opposing pitching staff, even without the suspended Chris Davis.

Together these teams are changing the face of baseball in the East divisions, and they each have sustainability. The Orioles have the resources to keep their best players, unlike the once-threatening Tampa Bay Rays, and the Yankees and Red Sox don’t look like they’ll be serious contenders anytime soon.

In the Senior Circuit, the Nationals could run their division for years if the Braves continue to slip and the New York Mets, Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies don’t figure out how to lift themselves above .500.

“The tea tastes sweeter, the ketchup’s better, things look better than they normally look,” Showalter told The Baltimore Sun's Eduardo A. Encina. “I woke up the other day and there’s a little crispness in the air, the leaves are starting to fall a little bit, there’s a little color starting to come in. It’s that time of year. It’s good to be alive.”

For the baseball teams of the Beltway, it could seem like that for the foreseeable future.

Anthony Witrado covers Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report. He spent the previous three seasons as the national baseball columnist at Sporting News, and four years before that as the Brewers beat writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.