Let’s be honest.  The DC metro area (and Baltimore by close proximity) by and large shuts down after the NFL Draft and wakes up in earnest when training camp kicks off in Ashburn and Owings Mills.  Kids of all ages prepare for beach getaways and the road to Rehoboth… Dewey and Ocean City.  Fans who bleed Burgundy and Gold–or even Purple and Black– take their summer slumbers.  College football/hoop fans decompress while wondering what jerseys or even conferences their teams will inhabit next season.  

But not so in 2012.  For the first time in a while– local baseball is relevant after Memorial Day.  And not in a novelty (DC has a new team!  Cal’s going to retire!) way… this summer involves daily checks of the standings and the mental math that determines who starts on your next ballpark visit (don’t forget to carry the 1).  Both the Nationals and Orioles find themselves in division races… and all signs point to this not being a springtime flirtation but a summer romance with contention.

The Nats boast the best pitching staff in the big leagues– boasting the only sub-3.00 ERA.  It’s not just Stephen Strasburg (although #37 leads the NL in strikeouts)… Gio Gonzalez has adjusted well to the senior circuit (8-2, 2.35 ERA) … and while Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson are both under .500, neither is so awful they’re costing this team games.  Just as important, Tyler Clippard’s move to closer has turned the team’s late inning fortunes around in a major way. 

Offensively, the lineup has had more than a few makeovers.  Remember the originally envisioned 1-2 combo of Desmond & Espinosa?  Feels like ages ago with the new rookie tandem of Steve Lombardozzi and Bryce Harper atop the order.  Two decent table-setters that will challenge outfield arms and provide plenty of RBI chances for Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and the suddenly healthy Michael Morse.  With Ian Desmond (6th or 7th) in a better RBI spot… the once offensive offense now can give their pitching staff the support it deserves (4+ runs in 6 of last 7 games).

Meanwhile, up I-95 the Orioles are making a Rip Van Winkle- like emergence from a decade-plus slumber.  Since 1997 this franchise has dealt with one incredible walk in the wilderness, from the dream turned nightmare season of 1998 where in anticipation of a World Series run USA Today announced they’d follow them all season long… to 2002 when the O’s started 63-63 only to finish 4-32… to a rotating door in the manager’s office (7 over 13 seasons from 1998 to 2010).  Finally under the guidance of Buck Showalter the Birds appear to be in the race for the duration… despite allowing more runs than they’ve scored, the O’s have been playing tag with first place since opening day.  Credit a 9-2 record in extra innings to timely hitting (3rd in the bigs in home runs) and keeping mistakes to a minimum.

So how long does this summer romance continue?  Can these two teams not accustomed to winning deal with the pressure of being atop the standings as opposed to being under the radar?  And how will the relatively new DC market embrace this run?  Ahh… summer lovin’.  Have yourselves a blast, Nats and O’s fans.