The Baltimore Orioles can sweep the latest Beltway Series partly because they've controlled the opposing heart of the order and the Washington Nationals haven't.
Regardless of what their big hitters do, the Orioles and Nationals are unlikely to make the playoffs even though neither is far removed from having a very realistic chance to repeat as East Division champions.
Baltimore enters Thursday's season series finale in D.C. officially eliminated from the AL East chase after first-place Toronto won Wednesday. The Orioles (75-76) last led the division July 2 and were within four games of first Aug. 17 but went on to lose 13 of 15. The current 10-4 stretch has them four behind Houston for the second wild-card spot with 11 to play, but Minnesota and the Los Angeles Angels are also ahead of them.
Washington (78-73) is all but out of wild-card contention and 6 1/2 back of the New York Mets in the NL East. The Nationals led the division as recently as Aug. 2 but were amid a 4-13 stretch that let the Mets take control, and they wasted a chance to gain ground by losing 4-1 to the Orioles on Tuesday and 4-3 on Wednesday.
Prior to those defeats, Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth keyed a 7-1 span with nine home runs and 20 RBIs. Harper has drawn five walks in this series but was retired in his other three plate appearances. Issuing free passes to the MVP candidate has been a good strategy because Werth, batting cleanup behind Harper, is 0 for 8 while leaving 10 men on base.
Baltimore has had no such problems despite cleanup man Adam Jones missing both games with back spasms. Steve Pearce stepped in to deliver a two-run homer Wednesday and an RBI double Tuesday while batting behind Chris Davis, who has two doubles and an RBI.
It was No. 2 hitter Manny Machado, though, who had the biggest blow with a go-ahead, two-run homer off Max Scherzer in the seventh inning Wednesday.
There may be some lingering ill will after Nationals closer Jonathan Papelbon threw high and tight to Machado in the ninth and later plunked him on the upper arm. Machado yelled toward Papelbon, who was ejected, and the benches briefly cleared.
"When you throw at somebody's head on purpose first pitch, straight out the get-go, then you throw a curveball, then you throw again at the head, that's just ... ," Machado said using a street term. "You know it's coward stuff. It's just coward."
Harper is anticipating some retaliation.
"I mean Manny freaking hit a homer," Harper said. "Walked it off and somebody drilled him. I mean, it's pretty tired. It's one of those situations where it happens and, I don't know, I'll probably get drilled tomorrow."
The one to do it could be Tyler Wilson (2-2, 3.72 ERA).
The promising rookie is getting a try in Baltimore's rotation after being recalled last week, but he lost at Tampa Bay on Friday by allowing six runs and eight hits in 4 1-3 innings. The right-hander, who turns 26 on Friday, had a 2.19 ERA in six previous appearances for Baltimore, including two spot starts.
"You got to keep in mind these guys have never really pitched in September before," manager Buck Showalter told MLB's official website. "So it's part of the process, and I think he will learn from it. He's a sharp, competitive guy."
Washington goes with Tanner Roark (4-6, 4.73), who has failed to pitch past the fifth inning in three starts since his call-up.
His worst performance since returning came last Thursday when he surrendered six runs and eight hits in a 6-4 loss at Miami, though Roark said it was an effort he could "build off." He has a 5.66 ERA in nine starts this season.