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 at Bright House Field on March 6 — yes, March 6! — these 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 Washington’s lineup included only one starter.
Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg claimed to have hit Phillies veteran second baseman Chase Utley in the ankle by accident with a pitch during a third-inning at-bat in a 6-3 loss to Philadelphia. That, however, didn’t sit well with Phillies veteran starter Roy Halladay, who, coincidentally, joked last month that Utley told him to drill more batters this season. Halladay, long lauded for his pinpoint command, fired a fastball behind Tyler Moore. 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 could be believable if not for the recent bad blood between the teams. The Phillies’ five-year reign atop the National League East ended abruptly with a shift of power to the Nationals, a youthful team poised to contend for years. 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, 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 upped the ante, saying the Nationals could 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 not taken 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 certainly seemed possible that Halladay was making the case for sending a message.
“That’s up to them,” Strasburg said. “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.”
Strasburg, whose command was already wavering before Utley stepped in, insisted he unintentionally yanked a fastball at the second baseman, adding that it was hard to grip the ball because of the dry conditions. “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 players. Moore’s response, 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 at his locker, teammate Corey Brown offered him a suggestion: “Tell the truth. Be honest.”
Moore, however, tried his best to play down the incident. He is a second-year player and likely doesn’t want to be dragged into anything with veterans such as Halladay and Utley.
“He missed a little inside,” said Moore, whose smile betrayed him. “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.”
After the missed pitch, Moore didn’t react, and smacked the next one 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.”
If this is the level of drama created by both teams in this rare spring training meeting on March 6, without all of their regular players, one can only imagine the possible fireworks 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.”
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Box score: Phillies 6, Nationals 3