There was talk last week, here and elsewhere, about whether the yearly tilt with the Orioles constituted a “rivalry.” I say no, but the jury’s still out. There is no question however that the Nationals now have a REAL rival in the Phillies.
I used to be a Phillies fan, until pretty recently actually, but I’ve followed the Nats for years. They’ve long been an also-ran, a series for other teams that generated no real excitement. Mediocre players on a last-place team with a sparse, apathetic crowd in the stands. But this season, the pieces started to fall in place, a few big moves here, a few prospects breaking out there, and we had what looked like a contender coming out of spring training.
The Phillies, on the other hand, started the season wheezing. Despite coming off of a 102-win season, they looked like a shadow of their former selves. Sure, the rotation is still dominant, but the offense is a disaster, and the farm system is gutted.
The defending champs were ripe for an up-and-comer to take them on, and the Nationals’ front office took brilliant advantage of it. With the “Take Back the Park” gimmick, the Nationals declared themselves the real rival to the Phillies, never mind those cellar-dwelling Mets, the team Phils fans really love to hate. It goes unnoticed to many, but the Nationals have actually owned the Phillies recently, going 11-4 against them since this time last year. But the response from Philadelphia has always been to point to the standings and say, get back to us when you’re not in last. The Nationals needed a game-changer to excite their base and get the enemy frothing at the mouth. So #OurPark was born. Phillies fans were never really shut out of games; tickets were still available at game time. They were just offered second-class status, and they went nuts.
Cut to series one. The conditions were perfect for the Nationals. First-place vs last-place, in a reversal of recent history. The hottest prospect in the game, almost forced into the bigs by a series of injuries. And that gimmick by the Nats front office, riling up a fanbase more inclined to ignore the Nat fans than to get mad. Nationals fans represented themselves well, shouting down the chants of Phillies fans who proved they deserved their reputation, taunting a clearly badly-injured Jayson Werth. And the beaning heard ‘round the world was a gift; Harper came off as mature, the Phillies as sore (and surprising) losers.
Who knows what the rest of the baseball season will hold? But for right now, the Nationals-Phillies series is the talk of baseball, thanks to some bold, strategic moves by the Nats front office and some great timing. Mission accomplished. For now.