Nats-Phils rivalry quiet now, but could erupt
Slow starts mute what should evolve into contentious relationship
PHILADELPHIA -- The rivalry between the Nationals and Phillies is newly minted. As a result, it's not as entrenched as some of the more storied contentious relationships in baseball such as Yankees-Red Sox. Dodgers-Giants. Cardinals-Cubs.
And, with both teams hovering around .500, it might not have quite the steam as the two teams met in the middle game of the first series of the season at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday night as it had earlier. But don't be fooled. This is a rivalry that has, as the scouts say, a high ceiling.
"As far as a rivalry goes, there definitely is one," said Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth, who starred for Phillies teams that went to the World Series in 2008 and 2009 before signing a seven-year, $126 million contract with Washington before the 2011 season.
Werth's defection was probably the first shot across the bow, even though the Nationals were coming off a last-place finish at the time and the Phillies were in the midst of winning five straight National League East championships. By last year, Washington not only took the division, but amassed the best regular-season record in baseball.
The ingredients are there. Teams that play each other 19 times a season. Cities that are two hours apart. Rosters dotted with high-profile stars including Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg for Washington; Chase Utley and Cliff Lee for Philly. But the secret sauce, what has allowed this to be distilled into strong feelings in a remarkably short time, rests on three incidents.
During Werth's first Spring Training with the Nationals, it was reported that general manager Mike Rizzo leaned against the batting cage and remarked, "I hate the Phillies." And to that Werth, who was taking batting practice at the time, replied, "I hate them, too."
Werth explained that this wasn't what it seems.
"I was laughing when I said what I said. I was just kind of going along with what Rizz said, which was that he hated the Phillies because he was tired of getting his butt kicked by them. And I was kind of like, 'Yeah, I hate the Phillies, too. Ha ha.' So, it was totally out of context. People were rubbed the wrong way," Werth said before Tuesday's game.
Still, a perception was formed.
"It kind of got the whole thing kicked off on the wrong foot. But it is what it is. I can't change it now. People have their own perspective of what they think happened. Which really is too bad," Werth said.
Then, before the 2012 season, the Nationals took steps to stop Phillies fans from flooding down I-95 and buying up a majority of the tickets when the Phillies were in Washington. When single-game tickets went on sale, they refused to sell them to anybody outside the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
"Frankly, I was tired of seeing it. Forget you, Philly. This is our park, this is our town," Nationals chief operating officer Andrew Feffer told the Washington Post.
To be clear, the baseball people had nothing to do with that, or with unofficially renaming the stadium "Natitude Park."
"That was the marketing people," Rizzo said. "We didn't give it much thought once that happened. We had enough to do playing between the lines and trying to get better every year."
"When I first came to the Phillies in '07, Mets fans would come down to Phillies games," Werth said. "And it just took us winning to get the Mets fans out. Then the Mets fans left. There weren't anymore Mets fans. When I got to D.C., the Phillies fans were coming down and I said it would take us winning to get them out. And in a short period of time, we won. I mean, they still come, but not like in droves like they did. So, that was good."
Still, another seed had been planted. And it began to blossom when Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels hit Harper with a pitch shortly after he made his Major League debut last May -- and then admitted he'd done it on purpose.
From the Phillies' perspective, the Nationals got the ball rolling.
"They definitely started it," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel. "We used to beat them, but they always played us tough. It seemed like they kind of beat themselves a lot of times and got frustrated. Then all of a sudden, when their team started improving, they said they kind of modeled their team after us. And, to me, that was good. That was a sign of respect. And then, of course, they wanted to get better and beat us."
The principle is the same as the new kid in the neighborhood letting everybody know he's arrived by punching the toughest kid on the block in the nose.
"I think that's what they tried to create, yes. And also, that's what created the interest for their fanbase. And that was good. That's good public relations, that's good for both sides," Manuel said. "I don't mind them taking back their park. I don't mind them saying they hate the Phillies and things like that. If anything, I think it would fire us up for them to say things like that."
Rizzo said there was no premeditation, although he did concede the Phillies were viewed as the team to beat.
"It wasn't a conscious effort to go after them. They had been the division champs for several years. They were the model organization in the division. You always want to play the best, and compete against the best, and beat the best. And they were the best. They were a team we had a lot of respect for, and as we grew as a franchise, we really enjoyed competing against them," Rizzo said.
"But once you get to the point where you can compete with them and beat them, you really want to beat the best and knock the king off the mountain," said Rizzo.
At the end of last season, shortstop Jimmy Rollins was quoted as saying the Nationals would have finished second if the Phillies had been healthy all year. Retorted Werth this spring to the Philadelphia Inquirer, "If we had been healthy, we might have won 120."
In an early March Grapefruit League game in Clearwater, Fla., Roy Halladay threw behind Nats outfielder Tyler Moore with a pitch an inning after Strasburg plunked Utley. Halladay said he hadn't thrown at Moore on purpose.
"It slipped," said Halladay. "A little bit," he said with a straight face after a short pause.
When Nationals manager Davey Johnson asked Moore if there was any history behind him and Halladay, the outfielder replied, "There is now."
And so it goes.
"Right now, I think the fact that both teams got off to a slow start, it's not as glittery as it was last year," Manuel said. "It's kind of like somebody waiting for somebody to get ahead and take charge so it can start some commotion. Start some chatter. Right now, it just kind of sits there at a standstill. Both sides are kind of quiet."
Werth predicts that won't last.
"It's an interesting dynamic we've got going here. And I think this year will probably do a lot to fuel that rivalry. I still believe both these teams are going to be in it coming down the stretch in September," he said.
"I think us winning the division last year probably ticked everybody [in Philadelphia] off as much as anything. But it's good. Good baseball rivalries are great. It's not like one of those rivalries you see out on the West Coast where they're fighting every other week. This is just good, old-fashioned baseball. Both teams want to be the best and we're going out and playing our butts off every night. That's what makes baseball great. That's what people love about the game. To have a rivalry like that in the game and in the division, I'm all for it. I think it's awesome."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.