Igniting A Nationals Vs. Phillies Rivalry

When Cole Hamels drilled Bryce Harper in the back with a fastball during the 1st inning of Sunday night’s game the ignition of a new rivalry in baseball, between the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies, was further etched in stone. To say that Hamels and Harper would be the center of such a story may not have sounded so surprising just a few months ago, but the circumstances were certainly nothing anyone could have seen coming.

The ownership group of the Nationals first stirred the pot of this budding rivalry when they initially presented their “Take Back the Park” campaign in early March. For the past few seasons, anytime the Phillies have come to town there is a noticeable split among the fans filling Nationals Park. The split hasn’t been in Washington’s favor as thousands of faithful Phillies fans have made the 2+ hour drive down from Philadelphia to support their team. Nationals fans have simply been outnumbered in their own stadium.

This year is supposed to be different, so the plan was to encourage the budding Washington faithful to come to the game instead of the visitors from Philadelphia. Most reports seem to suggest the campaign had an effect, as the stadium had a 70/30 split of Nationals’ fans to Phillies’ fans for Friday night’s game. Saturday and Sunday were closer to 60/40. Our own Marty Niland attended Friday’s game and reported that the split was obvious within the stadium, particularly anytime the Phillies faithful tried to get a cheer going only to hear it be completely drowned out by a louder Nationals fanbase.

Recent history hasn’t been kind of the Nationals, as Philadelphia has more than dominated their side of the rivalry. The Phillies have won five consecutive division titles. Washington has never reached the playoffs. The Phillies have had more All Stars, received more Cy Young and MVP Award votes, and have easily dominated more of the headlines. Since the start of the 2005 season, the two teams have faced eachother 131 times (most of any opponent in Nationals history). Philadelphia has won 80 of those contests, roughly 61%.

Yet, after the series between the two sides concluded with Washington winning 2 of 3 games, it’s the Nationals that sat atop the NL East with Philadelphia in the cellar. It’s an unfamiliar position for both sides, further antagonizing the current situation.

Despite the outrage that followed throughout the first half of the week, most noticeably on Twitter, there has been a great deal of debate surrounding Hamels’ actions during (and after) Sunday’s game. Much of that debate has stemmed from two camps. None of it began until Hamels’ comments went public post-game:

I was trying to hit him. I’m not going to deny it. It’s something I grew up watching. That’s what happened. I’m just trying to continue the old baseball. Some people get away from it. I remember when I was a rookie, the strike zone was really, really small and you didn’t say anything. That’s the way baseball is. Sometimes the league is protecting certain players. It’s that old school prestigious way of baseball.

Most of the reaction to the comments has been split among two groups.

One thinks that this is all another case of much-ado-about-nothing. So what that Hamels beaned Harper with that pitch? Why does it matter that he did it intentionally? This is baseball, it’s the way the game is played, so just get over it.

The other group spent hours screaming for Hamels to be suspended, reprimanded in some way. How dare he hit Harper for no reason? How arrogant could he be to openly admit it?

Hamels wanted to put Harper – the young rookie phenom who’s dominated the headlines since making his debut – in his place. He also wanted to put the Nationals in their place, too. Hamels felt like he needed to be the one to ‘welcome the rookie to the Majors’ and may have other reasons for intentionally hitting a rookie in a completely unprovoked manner. He’s entitled to them, but don’t expect the general consensus to agree with them. The open admission of those reasons, however, is ultimately what led to Major League Baseball issuing a 5 game suspension*, not the actual act of hitting Harper.

* It’s worth noting that the return of Cliff Lee from the DL coupled with a well-timed off day will allow the Phillies to avoid shuffling their rotation to acomodate Hamels’ suspension. In fact, it’s likely that he’ll sit out the five games without actually missing a start. He’ll pay a fine but that’s it. 

Meanwhile, Jayson Werth‘s injury was certainly unfortunate and the significance was perhaps further magnified due to his history with the Phillies organization prior to joining the Nationals. But the reported fan reaction is yet another factor in this story.

Werth’s past as a Phillie is well known and documented at this point, but it’s worth remembering that he was often thought of highly by the fanbase for his all-out style of play. It’s understandable for a fanbase to essentially turn on a player when he leaves via free agency to join a division rival, especially when it’s for the money, but there is no justification for the reported behavior exhibited by the Phillies fans once the 6th inning of Sunday’s game came around. Werth wrote an email to Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post after Sunday’s game (presumably while en route to see the specialist that performed surgery on his wrist) detailing what he heard:

After walking off the field feeling nauseous knowing my wrist was broken and hearing Philly fans yelling “You deserve it” and “That’s what you get”, I am motivated to get back quickly and see to it personally those people never walk down Broad Street in celebration again.

The budding rivalry between the Nationals and Phillies is long from being fully developed. There just hasn’t been enough time to pass in the history between the two franchises. But it’s growing and seemingly growing quickly. And we already seem to have our standing moment which will represent each side:

Cole Hamels stood proud in his admission that hitting Bryce Harper was intentional. His Phillies were the older, more experienced team. The more qualified team to lead the division and the more serious contender for a National League pennant. The more mature team. There were injuries hampering the lineup, notably Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, but despite that the Phillies expected to be the better team. They just haven’t realized yet that they’re the old guys in the division now. They are trending down after years on top.

Bryce Harper took a fastball in the back from Cole Hamels, briefly stretched, and then ran down to first base without a second thought. He hustled from first to third once the next batter, Jayson Werth, singled to right. Hamels attempted to pick off Werth and it was enough of an opening for Harper to steal home. The kid didn’t flinch when he was hit by a pitch. Instead, he went and did what got him to the Majors and hustled his way to scoring a run. The youth, energy, and excitement is what the Nationals are becoming. And this might just be their chance to be on top.

The two teams will face eachother 15 more times this season. Next is a three game series in Philadelphia starting on Monday, May 21st. If it’s just a 2+ hour drive up to Philadelphia, perhaps some Nationals fans should start considering making plans for a road trip.

Stay tuned to District on Deck and like our Facebook page for all of the latest on the Washington Nationals. You can follow Aaron Somers on Twitter @AaronJSomers.

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Tags: Bryce Harper Cole Hamels Jayson Werth Nationals Philadelphia Phillies Phillies Washington Nationals

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