CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The rivalry that has been intensifying between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals knows no bounds. Even on a sunny and windy Wednesday here at Bright House Field on March 6 – yes, March 6! -- these two teams can engage in a spirited battle of old-school baseball egos and wills. It mattered little that they are only three weeks into spring training, the games that matter are a month away and that the Nationals lineup fielded only one starter.

Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg believably plunked Phillies veteran second baseman Chase Utley in the back ankle by accident during a third inning at-bat in a 6-3 loss to Philadelphia. This, however, didn’t sit well with Philadelphia veteran starter Roy Halladay, who, coincidentally, joked last month that Utley told him to drill more batters this season. Halladay, lauded for his pinpoint command, fired a fastball behind Tyler Moore. And later, he did little to assuage questions about whether his miss was intentional, further fanning the flames.

“Yeah, that one slipped a little bit,” Halladay told Phillies reporters, flashing a grin.

That would be completely believable if not for the recent blood between the two teams. The Phillies’ five-year reign atop the National League East ended abruptly with a shift of power to the Nationals, a team poised to contend as division champions for years given the youth of team. Last May, Cole Hamels admitted to purposely plunking Bryce Harper, and drew a suspension from baseball and the verbal ire of General Manager Mike Rizzo.

If that wasn’t enough to further fuel contention, the pride of the former champions still raged when Jimmy Rollins said after the season finale that the Nationals would have been a second-place team if not for the injuries the Phillies endured. Jayson Werth recently countered by upping the ante, saying the Nationals would have won 120 games if not for their own injuries.

So when Halladay fires a fastball several feet behind Moore on the first pitch of the fourth inning at-bat with two outs the inning after Utley was hit, it’s hard to take it lightly.

“It slipped,” Halladay explained later. “Really, I think, we do need to protect our guys to an extent. I’m not saying that’s what happened. It slipped. But that’s important. We’ve had a lot of guys hit over the years. As a staff, we need to do a good job of protecting those guys. Spring training, you’re not necessarily trying to do it. But it wouldn’t have been the worst thing had it got him after hitting one of our good guys.”

That last line, in particular, was so open-ended it seems indeed possible that Halladay was making the case for purposely sending a message to the Nationals.

“That’s up to them,” he added. “I mean, I don’t understand why they’d think I was throwing at them. Obviously you can tell the conditions weren’t great and I yanked it in there. It’s spring training. If you’re going to throw at somebody or give a message in spring training, go ahead.”

Strasburg, whose command was already wavering against the batters before Utley, insisted he unintentionally yanked a fastball the second baseman. “I don’t have any reason to throw at him, do I?” he asked.

Nationals Manager Davey Johnson insisted he didn’t think much of the incident, saying it was “much ado about nothing.” To be sure, he asked Moore if there was any history between the player. Moore’s respones, according to Johnson: “He said, ‘There is now.’ I wouldn’t want Moore coming after me, I know that.”

But Johnson, in his typical way, added a joking jab about Halladay: “Maybe Hamels is coaching him.”

As reporters entered the visiting clubhouse and found Moore dressing at his locker, teammate Corey Brown offered him a suggestion: “Tell the truth. Be honest.”

Moore, however, tried his best to downplay the incident. He is a second-year player and dlikely oesn’t want to be dragged into anything with veterans like Halladay and Utley. Moore said the right things following the game but the smile on his face as he answered questions betrayed him.

“He missed a little inside,” said Moore, who insisted he was joking in what he told Johnson. “He’s a competitor man. I don’t know if he was protecting his team or what, but I know that he knows it’s spring training and he’s a professional and he’s done this for a long time and maybe it just slipped out of his hand.”

But why would Halladay target Moore? It’s unclear but here’s a guess: Halladay likely wouldn’t want to send a message to the first batter of the inning, which was Steve Lombardozzi, because he wouldn’t want to have a runner on base with no outs. So after he induced outs from him and Anthony Rendon, Halladay tossed the errant fastball at Moore. After the missed pitch, Moore didn’t react and smacked the next pitch down the left field line for a double.

“I like it,” Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel said about protecting his team’s hitters. “That’s baseball, really. In the past, it’s not like we don’t take care of our hitters, but it seemed like some of them — especially Utley — gets hit more than anybody. Left-handed pitchers throw in on him a lot, so that’s one reason they hit him. They try to get in on him. But you’re supposed to take care of your hitters.”

If this is the level of drama created by both teams around each other on March 6, without all of their regular players, one can only imagine what fireworks are capable of being sparked in their first regular season series starting May 24.

“Phillies had a great run,” Johnson said. “It’s nice now that they’re thinking about us. It’s been a while. Talk is cheap. I don’t get too involved in all that. It’s gonna happen on the field. It’s a new season.”

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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