Nationals-Phillies Might Be the Best and Worst Rivalry in Major League Baseball

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterMay 23, 2012

PHILADELPHIA - MAY 22: Left fielder Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals hits a two-run triple during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on May 22, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
Hunter Martin/Getty Images

Ticket to Wednesday's series finale between the Phillies and Nationals? Check. Money for cheesesteaks and beer? Check. 2008 World Series Champions t-shirt? Check. Value pack of D-batteries to throw at the right fielder? Wait, what?!

Before the much-ballyhooed series between the Phillies and Nationals began this week, rookie phenom Bryce Harper made a joke to reporters that he hoped to get a few boos and, "I’m excited to get up there and play and hopefully they don’t throw any batteries or whatnot at me.”

Har. Har. Or whatnot.

Harper was six years old when some idiots in the outfield of Veterans Stadium hurled batteries at former Phillies first-round pick J.D. Drew, but the story has been told and retold so many times as part of the lore of Philly fandom (yes, up there with the lazy booing Santa references) that a 19-year-old kid can use the story to stoke the flames of a budding baseball rivalry. 

PHILADELPHIA - MAY 21: Left fielder Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals is congratulated by center fielder Rick Ankiel #24 after scoring a run during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on May 21, 2012 in Philadelphia,
Hunter Martin/Getty Images

Harper's comments were the latest in a long line of yapping coming from our nation's capital this season, most of which has been directed at the Phillies and their fans.

Whatever they have done in Washington is working.

The ridiculous "Take Back the Park" promotion in D.C. not only got the Washington fanbase to chirp up the disdain for Philly fans this season, but it actually managed to ignite the players into creating a full-fledged rivalry with the five-time defending division champs.

Now, it's the Nationals who sit atop the NL East, with the Phillies floundering in the basement, five and a half games out of first place in a division they've dominated for half a decade. 

Not only have the Nationals won four of the five meetings this season against the Phillies, but Washington won nine of the final 12 meetings last season, putting Philadelphia at 4-13 against the Nationals over the last calendar year heading into Wednesday's series finale.

This really has the potential to be a great division rivalry in baseball—perhaps one of Major League Baseball's best given the teams' proximity and penchant for signing each other's former players—if only one side would hold up its end of the bargain on the field.

PHILADELPHIA - MAY 22: Starting pitcher Roy Halladay #34 of the Philadelphia Phillies throws a pitch during a game against the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park on May 22, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
Hunter Martin/Getty Images

Yes, while the Phillies have been dominating the division, it's been the Nationals who have not so quietly started dominating the rivalry.

Roy Halladay headed into Tuesday's game with a commanding record against the Nats at 11-1 in 16 games, allowing just 28 earned runs in 110.2 innings pitched. Since coming to Philly, Halladay has owned the Nationals. Only nobody told that to Harper. The rookie smashed a two-run triple to right center field in the third inning, sparking a four-run rally from which the Nationals never looked back. 

Phillies fans shouldn't boo Harper just for being really good at baseball. If fans bring foreign projectiles to the game on Wednesday, it shouldn't be Harper who is worrying about getting hit. It should be the Phillies' own players. (Note: We do not condone throwing anything at anyone ever.) 

The Phillies had so many chances to get back into the game on Tuesday, but left nine men on base, going just 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position. Tuesday's numbers were inexplicably better than Monday's, as the Phillies left 10 men on base, batting 1-for-10 with RISP to open the series. 

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 06:  Cole Hamels #35 of the Philadelphia Phillies pitches against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on May 6, 2012 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The last hope for Philadelphia to keep any reasonable pace in the NL East may be the guy who helped inflame the rivalry to what it has become: Cole Hamels.

Hamels is by far the Phillies' best pitcher this season, putting himself in the early conversation for the NL Cy Young Award. 

Sadly, most of the national headlines for Hamels haven't been about how incredibly well he has pitched with all the pressure of keeping a floundering team afloat while worrying about his pending free agency. No, all anyone can talk about when Hamels' name comes up is how he plunked Harper, admitted he did it on purpose and got suspended for it.

Hamels is totally to blame for creating this situation, and so far, it seems to have backfired quite fabulously (though part of me thinks he was sending a bigger message to the rest of his team than to Harper). 

One plunk in a teenager's back, and the ridiculous aftermath it created, has turned the Philly-D.C. games into must-see. Unless you root for the Phillies, whereby watching this rivalry unfold has become a rather dreadful experience. 

Hamels didn't start this rivalry, by the way. Things really got started when Jayson Werth took the money and ran to D.C.—a move any sensible Phillies fan can't blame him for doing.

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 05:  Jayson Werth #28 ofthe Washington Nationals hugs Brad Lidge #54 of the Washington Nationals after a win against the Chicago Cubs during the opening day game at Wrigley Field on April 5, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois.  The Nationals de
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It was escalated when Brad Lidge, likely upset at not getting an offer from Philly after doing nothing for the franchise since his record-setting season in 2008, proclaimed the 2012 Nationals the most talented teams he's ever been a part of. Lidge not only played a huge part in the 2008 World Series championship season, but took up space in the bullpen for a team that won 102 games (and should have won 108) last season. 

To call this year's Nationals team the most talented was a direct shot at Philadelphia, pouring gasoline on the blaze for no reason. The subtle irony is that Werth—who has been mostly mediocre in his games against Philly (and broke his wrist in a game earlier this season)—and Lidge haven't done nearly as much on the field as the rest of the upstart Nationals have in making this rivalry so one-sided. Really, though, the Phillies are doing a lot of this to themselves.

There is a silver lining for Philadelphia. If Hamels can help Philly win the final game of this series, the Phils will be just 4.5 back in the division and, at worst, 3.5 back in the wild-card race. The season isn't over for Philadelphia, which clearly seems to be just treading water until Ryan Howard and Chase Utley eventually come back.

At some point, the rivalry with Washington will tilt back north. The Phillies have been too good for too long to let these upstart Nationals just take over without a fight (Note: The Braves are loving this, by the way). 

The Phillies will get their part of this on-field rivalry going. They just better hope it's not too late to make a difference this season.


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