MIAMI -- It seemed everybody in baseball anointed the Nationals as the 2013 World Series champions months before Opening Day.
They were the team without a weakness.
(And they had Natitude!)
The Phillies were a team with weaknesses. They were old. They had an offense without much firepower. One of their aces appeared to be on the downside of his career. The popular theory had been that if everything broke nearly perfectly, the Phillies just might have a chance to earn a postseason berth. The only question between the Phils and Nats seemed to be how far behind Philadephia would be in the standings when it played Washington for the first time in May in the nation's capital.
It turns out that just one game separates them in the National League East standings.
It turns out the Nationals aren't even in first place.
"I think we can beat them," Cliff Lee said following Wednesday's 3-0 victory over the Marlins. "I think we can beat any team when we're playing well. We're not in awe of those guys -- or any team, really. If we execute and do what we can do, we can beat anyone."
This weekend's series between the Phillies (23-24) and Nationals (24-23) is an intriguing one, especially for the Phils. They have been frustratingly inconsistent in the season's first 47 games, particularly offensively. They have scored two or fewer runs in 18 games and three or fewer runs in 26 games. That consistent lack of run support and overall inconsistent play has had Philadelphia general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. answering questions about the future of the team, including the fate of his top players, manager and coaching staff, even though the Phillies have won seven of their last 10 games.
They are fair questions. Despite the fact the Phillies are a game behind the Nationals, 5 1/2 games behind the first-place Braves and 5 1/2 games behind the second NL Wild Card, it is inarguable the offense needs to improve dramatically to give the team a legitimate chance to win.
Perhaps the worst-case scenario might be the Phils hanging on the periphery of the NL East or Wild Card races, putting the front office in no man's land when it comes to buying or selling as the non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches on July 31.
Does Philadelphia buy if it's barely a .500 team in late July?
How could it sell?
"I view us as a contender," Amaro said on Wednesday. "My job is to be a contender every year, whether or not the guys are old or young or whatever the case may be. Our job is to find the right combination of players on the field to contend every year, contend for the National League East and hopefully for the World Series. And, yes, our core players are not getting any younger, but that doesn't mean that they can't be productive and we can't try to find players, either internally, develop them ourselves, or find them outside the organization to cover any deficiencies for things they may not be able to bring.
"We still have good players. We just haven't put it all together yet for whatever reason. They haven't gotten going offensively in particular. We still think that they can, but they haven't. The real question is: How long can you wait? Right now, we're willing to wait, because no one is crazy and running away with it. We're willing to wait, and how long we'll wait is a decision I'll have to make. Right now, I view us as buyers."
Fans have been asking more and more recently for accountability, which means more heat on manager Charlie Manuel.
"We're all in this thing together," Amaro said. "We're all accountable for the things that happen on the field, myself included. I'll tell you the same thing when we talked to Charlie [Manuel] in the offseason. We're not going to do anything about Charlie until after the year. Charlie has had a history of having a lot of success in the second half of the year. We might have the best record in baseball over the past several years from July 1 on.
"If the guys play like they have on the back of their baseball cards, then we'll be OK."
A big weekend in Washington could go a long way for the Phillies. It could really get them moving in the right direction.
"I honestly haven't been following them at all," Lee said of the Nats, "so I don't know how they've been doing, or I really don't care, to be honest. I couldn't care less. I'm focused on what we're doing and what we have to improve on, and what I have to improve on. That's what I'm focusing on. We have to take care of our own stuff. And if we do that, we can beat anyone."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com.