Nationals in rare position atop NL East

Posted: May 04, 2012

ATLANTA - Whatever Natitude is, the Phillies will experience it Friday night when they square off against Washington in the first game of what is shaping up to be the most intriguing series between the two teams in recent memory.

The Nationals lead the National League East by 1 1/2 games. The last time Washington was in first place later than April 4 was 2005, when it went 81-81 and finished nine games back in the division.

The Phillies, meanwhile, are 13-13 and 3 1/2 games back.

The ties between these two teams run deep. With third baseman Ryan Zimmerman on the disabled list, the Nationals are looking toward former Phillie Jayson Werth to anchor their offense. After a disappointing 2011, Werth entered Thursday's win over Arizona hitting .274/.378/.417 with two home runs, although he was 6-for-37 with eight strikeouts in his last 11 games. The Phillies also will get their first look at 19-year-old uber prospect Bryce Harper, who went 5-for-13 with three doubles in his first four games in the majors.

Harper is a native of Las Vegas, where he sometimes works out with Phillies centerfielder Shane Victorino, who makes his offseason home there.

"What impresses me most about the kid is that he wants to work hard, he wants to learn," said Victorino, who first watched Harper take batting practice when he was 14 or 15 years old. "He has all the talent in the world, but he's not just a guy that goes out there and says, 'I'm the man.'

"He has a lot of pressure as far as what the game has bestowed upon him. What I like so far of what I've seen is the way he's playing the game. He's playing it hard. He's running balls out, he's doing those things. That's a positive when the kid has been labeled the next great thing in baseball."

Laynce Nix, who hit his second home run of the season Thursday against the Braves, spent the 2011 season in Washington.

"They are a good team," Nix said. "Their pitching staff is great and they have a lot of good players, so it's going to be interesting. It should be some good competition."

During spring training, the Nationals used the Phillies in an attempt to motivate their fan base, labeling this series "Take Back the Park Weekend" while attempting to limit Philadelphians' access to tickets. As of Thursday, the Nationals ranked 13th in the National League in attendance.

"We're going to show up," manager Charlie Manuel said. "I don't think we're going to be scared."

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