Phils, Nats set to renew fledgling rivalry

Phils, Nats set to renew fledgling rivalry

Phils, Nats set to renew fledgling rivalry
PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies have had 225 consecutive regular-season sellouts at Citizens Bank Park, and Monday night's game with the Nationals doesn't figure to be any different.

Except for the part about this being the first meeting between the two National League East contenders since left-hander Cole Hamels hit Nats phenom Bryce Harper with a pitch in a nationally-televised game 15 days ago. And the part where Hamels admitted it afterward that he did so intentionally, and was suspended five games for his candor. And the part where Washington general manager Mike Rizzo called Hamels "gutless" and "classless" and "fake tough."

So, yeah, the anticipation is that there will be a little extra electricity in the packed seats when this fledgling rivalry is renewed.

"I look at it like any other series, but from a fan's standpoint?" said Phils center fielder Shane Victorino. "I can't speak for them, but I think they'd probably have some kind of extra incentive. Like they usually do. So I'm sure there will be some kind of buzz. You know how the fans are here, especially when you do something like trying to shut them out of that park in Washington. So I'm sure there will be extra buzz from their standpoint, but for us it's just another game, try to make up some ground in the division."

Victorino was referring to the Nationals' decision when single-game tickets went on sale this offseason to initially make seats available only to buyers with credit cards linked to the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. The idea was to keep Phillies fans from driving down I-95 and dominating the crowd. They called it "Take Back The Park."

A lot of those fans figure to be in attendance for this series, though.

"It's hard to fit any more people in here anyway, but it will be packed to the brim, and it will be interesting to see how the fans react," said left fielder Juan Pierre. "As for as in the clubhouse, we're going to go about our business the same way. But I think the media has pretty much hyped it. It got national attention. Their GM and all that stuff, it got heightened a little bit. But I think both clubhouses will fight like it's a divisional game."

Pierre paused and grinned.

"But it's always good to not like a division [opponent]," he added. "That's OK."

For the sake of accuracy, it's probably incorrect to suggest that this all started when a 93-mph fastball from Hamels bored into the small of Harper's back like a heat-seeking missle.

The first shot across the bow came after the 2010 season, when Phils right fielder Jayson Werth signed a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Nationals. During the next Spring Training, Rizzo and Werth were quoted as having the following exchange around the batting cage.

"I hate the [expletive] Phillies."

"I hate the Phillies, too."

Then there was the attempt, only partially successfully, to keep Philadelphia fans from coming to the games in Washington the first weekend in May. The biggest reason the competition between these two teams has heated up, though, is that it's getting to be more even.

From 2007-10, the Phillies were 51-21 against the Nationals. Since then: 9-12.

"Usually it seems the Phillies aren't that hyped up to come play us," shortstop Ian Desmond told reporters after the Hamels-Harper incident. "I think that they realize they needed to step it up a little bit, and that's nice. ... Usually when we play them, they're not. I think that they realized they have to kind of take it up a notch."

A lot has changed since then, however. Washington lost Werth to a broken wrist later in that game, and catcher Wilson Ramos is on the 60-day disabled list with torn knee ligaments. The Nationals are just 6-7 since that game.

The Phillies have added several players (Jake Diekman, Hector Luna, Raul Valdes, Mike Fontenot) to the roster since then, and after losing for the second straight game to the Red Sox on Sunday, they are still fighting to get out of last place in the division. Not only that, Monday begins a stretch of 20 straight games against teams with winning records, including three first-place clubs: the Cardinals, Dodgers and Orioles.

Left-hander Cliff Lee, who took the loss Sunday, said that has to be the focus, not just playing the Nationals.

"Any team is capable of beating any other team on a given day," Lee said. "For us, it's just about playing fundamental baseball and executing and playing the game the right way. If we do that, we can beat anyone. If we don't, anyone can beat us. To me, it just boils down to that. Obviously, we haven't been as consistent as we'd like to be, and our record shows it."

Still, Phils manager Charlie Manuel knows there will be some added attention paid.

"There will be some talking," he said. "Fans, media, everybody. I'm sure the players know exactly what happened. They still remember that. It wasn't that long ago."

Even Hamels, in the wake of the kerfuffle, predicted this would increase interest in future meetings.

"I think it could be a really good rivalry," he said. "We're so close. Our fans can come down, their fans can drive up. Their team is starting to peak into a really good, competitive team."

Hamels, by the way, starts in the series finale on Wednesday night.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.