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Posted at 11:43 AM ET, 05/23/2012

Cole Hamels will face Bryce Harper again as the Nationals try to sweep the reeling Phillies

(Rich Lipski - AP)
For the past two games, this Phillies-Nationals series has done anything but pick up where the last one left off. After the Hit By Pitch Heard ‘Round I-95, the teams have made nice as the Nationals clinched the series. Cole Hamels has stayed quiet. Mike Rizzo has kept a low profile. Bryce Harper has continued to say the right (boring) things.

It has been easy to forget about the animosity that sprang up on May 6 in Washington, but tonight will offer a reminder. Hamels will face the Nationals for the first time since he plunked Harper and then admitted he had done so on purpose. At about 7:10 p.m., Harper will stroll into the batter’s box for his first at-bat against Hamels since he went 2 for 3 with a double and a steal of home.

Since Hamels told USA Today he had stirred up the firestorm unintentionally, he has not said anything about the series. Harper said the last series is over and irrelevant to him.

“I don’t even think about that,” Harper said. “It’s a new series, a new day. I have a lot of respect for everybody in that other dugout. They’re an all-star team . . . guys who are all-stars who have been in this league for a long time.”

It is early, of course, but Harper is off to a smashing start against the Nationals’ rival. He has gone 6 for 19 with a double, a triple, four walks, two steals and, yeah, a hit by pitch.

While this series has differed from the one in Washington in terms of fireworks, it has played out exactly the same competitively. The Nationals won the first two games, and the Phillies turned to Hamels to salvage one victory. In his first start, Hamels’ dominance was overlooked because of his Harper plunking. Hamels allowed one run in eight innings.

After the Nationals finally got to Roy Halladay, the Phillies need another big performance from Hamels. The Nationals have dominated the Phillies since the end of last season, taking nine of 10. Last night, fans booed the Phillies off the field. But the Nationals are not necessarily celebrating yet.

(Rich Lipski - AP)
“I think you kind of have to look at it in reality,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “Last year, they were 20 games up. They weren’t playing full strength. This year, they’re not playing full strength. Neither are we, obviously. But it’s May, you know what I mean? These guys are a veteran ball club with good players, and we’ll see what happens toward the end of the year. These wins right here don’t mean anything. No pennant has ever been won in May.”

Still, at some point, the difference in the standings starts to mean something. If the Nationals convert the series sweep tonight behind Edwin Jackson, they’ll be 6 ½ games clear of the Phillies. They will have 118 games to hold that lead, sure, but with June around the corner, the outline of the playoff race is beginning to form.

And tonight, Hamels, the man in the middle of the Nationals-Phillies rivalry, holds the chance to give Philadelphia a win it needs.

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By  |  11:43 AM ET, 05/23/2012

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