Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

In Cliff Lee’s mind, he had tried to take advantage of an unprepared hitter. In Denard Span’s view, he had nearly been the victim of an unnecessarily dangerous pitch. The difference in interpretation mushroomed Friday night into a benches-clearing, bullpen-emptying fracas during the first of 19 meetings between the Phillies and Nationals.

Span settled into the batter’s box in the fifth inning of the Nationals’ 5-3 victory over the Phillies, twirling his bat and kicking at dirt with his spikes. He looked up, and all of a sudden saw Lee’s first pitch hurtling toward him. Span turned his shoulder to avoid the pitch, but he took exception.

After Lee buzzed an unsuspecting Span with an inside fastball in the fifth inning, Span grounded out to second, driving in the Nationals’ second run. As Span trotted off the field, he overhead Lee barking at him, turned and stop. At that point, dugouts cleared and, ridiculously, relievers from both teams streamed from the same bullpen gate. No punches were thrown, and no shoves were exchanged.

Afterward, both Span and Lee took their positions.

“I made a pitch, and he was in the box and wasn’t ready,” Lee said. “I’ll do that every time. If they want to stand there and not look, I’ll take a strike every time. I threw a ball, so maybe he was mad because it was close to him, but if they are going to stand there and not look, I’m going to throw a pitch. I think it’s on the hitter to be in the box and make sure they are ready. I’ll take advantage of that every time I can.”

After the pitch, Span glared at Lee until Lee looked at him. “Come on, man,” Span said. “You know that isn’t right.” Span, who faced Lee for several seasons when he played for the Twins and Lee played for the Indians, knows that Lee utilizes the quick-pitch. He believed if Lee was going to pitch to him when he wasn’t ready, he should have made the pitch was over the plate, not inside.

“I was in the box, had my head down,” Span said. “I don’t know what the rule is. I’ve been quick-pitched before, but I’ve never been quick-pitched when I’m not looking, and also quick-pitched up and in when I’m not looking. So that’s what bothered me. I didn’t like the fact he quick-pitched me, because he’s Cy Young. He can get guys out without doing that.

“But if he would’ve quick-pitched me and threw one right down the middle, on the outside corner for a strike, I would’ve been pissed off that I was down 0-1. But I would’ve been like, ‘Alright, I need to get back in the box and get ready.’ But when he quick-pitched me, I wasn’t looking. I had my head down, and he came up-and-in. I didn’t like that. If one slips, hits me in the head when I’m not looking … it’s just over something stupid.

“I have the utmost respect for him. I’ve been competing against him for a long time. But I didn’t like that at all. It was nothing like I wanted to go after him and fight him or anything like that. I just wanted to let him know I didn’t appreciate that. We’re playing this game trying not to get guys hurt. Whenever you do something like that to me, I think that’s not good at all.”

Lee shook off Span’s initial comments. When Span trotted off the field, he spoke up. Span thought Lee was talking to the umpire, but talking loud enough so he would hear him on purpose.

“I made the pitch and he kept shrugging at me like, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Lee said. “So when he ran off I said, ‘If you’re going to be in the box, you need to be ready to hit.’ And that was really it. No one was really mad or anything. I think it got overblown. I don’t think he was mad, and I wasn’t mad. I was just trying to explain what happened, especially in that situation – second and third, one out. If a guy is going to get in the batter’s box and not look, I’m going to throw a pitch. There’s no way around it. I think it’s on the hitter to pay attention when you’re in the box.”

Span did not think Lee wanted to hit him. But he said Lee should have been more careful throwing to him when he wasn’t paying attention.

“They were trying to come inside,” Span said. “I don’t think he was trying to hit me. But the fact that you’re coming inside and you’re trying to quick-pitch me when I’m not looking, that’s too dangerous. I mean, I’m not even looking. You throw a fastball inside? Like I said, if you throw a fastball away and quick-pitch me, okay. But that’s not … come on, man. He’s too good of a pitcher to quick-pitch like that when a guy’s not looking. He’s too good. I understand you’re trying to compete and you want to get the advantage. But I’ve been facing him too long and he’s had too much success in this league to do that. I just feel like he’s better than that.

“I don’t have a problem with him. If I see him, we can have a civil conversation about it. Honestly, that’s all I was trying to do. It looked like I was trying to go after him, but I really wasn’t. I just wanted to let him know: Come on, man. Me and him have been competing against each other for a long time. I’ve never had a problem with him. It was nothing like I wanted to go and fight him. Cause if I wanted to fight him, I could’ve got to him, easily. If I really wanted to. But that’s not what I wanted to do. I’m here to play baseball.”

>>> First baseman Adam LaRoche exited in the eighth inning with a sore quad, an ailment that kept him out of Wednesday’s game in Houston. LaRoche said his quad is “not good.” But when asked about his status for Saturday night, LaRoche replied, “I’m playing.”