Now we’re talking. Now the Washington Nationals have a rival. A real rival, not an interleague, MLB-arranged, biannual blind date with the Baltimore Orioles, which despite their proximity was actually more of a long-distance romance. There are simply too many fans in this area who cheered for the Orioles for too long. That was always a non-starter.
No, the Philadelphia Phillies are it now. The “Take Back the Park” initiative was an embarrassment by its very necessity, although it was a success. But making a real rivalry is more complicated than an ad campaign. Here’s what you do. Take a former swaggering world champion. Put it in last place. Take the former division doormat. Put it in first place. Stir. Top with a cheeky rookie. Serve.
Washington fans are nothing if not skeptical. They are slowly waking up to the fact that the Nationals may be for real this season, that their perch atop the National League East standings may be more than just an early season fluke. They are also beginning to realize that rookie Bryce Harper deserved the hype he got as a No. 1 draft pick.
The Phillies also feel Harper should get what he deserves. So Cole Hamels plunked him with a pitch in the first inning Sunday night. After the game, Hamels cheerfully admitted he did it on purpose. Major League Baseball reacted less cheerfully, suspending Hamels five games for his unusual candor.
“I was trying to hit him,” Hamels said. “I’m not going to deny it. . . . I remember when I was a rookie, the strike zone was really, really small and you didn’t say anything just because that’s the way baseball is. Sometimes the league is protecting certain players and making it not that old-school, prestigious way of baseball.”
(Ah, yes, that old-school, prestigious way of baseball that includes segregation, spitters and steroids. Let’s not put the sport too high on a pedestal, there, Cole.)
Harper, who still throws little hissy fits when things don’t go his way — he’s 19 — handled the situation perfectly in just his eighth major league start. He walked to first base, took third on a single by Jayson Werth — poor Jayson Werth — and then he stole home. Now that’s some old-school baseball.
General Manager Mike Rizzo, who almost never throws hissy fits, was ready to go 10 rounds with Hamels on Monday morning, telling Post reporter Adam Kilgore that Hamels should be suspended and that Hamels is “fake tough.”
“He thinks he’s sending a message to us of being a tough guy?” Rizzo said. “He’s sending the polar opposite message. He says he’s being honest; well, I’m being honest. It was a gutless, chicken [scratch] act. That was a fake-tough act. No one has ever accused Cole Hamels of being old school.”
And speaking of poor Jayson Werth, the former Phillie has new incentive to quickly rehab from the broken wrist he suffered in Sunday night’s loss, thanks to those former fans of his.
“After walking off the field feeling nauseous knowing my wrist was broke and hearing Philly fans yelling ‘You deserve it,’ and, ‘That’s what you get,’ I am motivated to get back quickly and see to it personally those people never walk down Broad Street in celebration again,” Werth e-mailed Kilgore. And with one good hand, too. Now that’s Natitude!
Rizzo also said Harper would not like his general manager defending him. (Memo to Hamels: That’s old school.) Rizzo also probably knows Harper doesn’t need defending. Harper seems perfectly capable of taking care of himself. He may throw his little tantrums, but his play is mature. Very mature.
Since he was their top draft pick in June 2010, the Nationals already have moved him from catcher to the outfield — and then all over the outfield — and he’s responded to it all with enthusiasm. Saturday, against the Phillies, he turned a short chopper into a hit simply by running hard to first base.
Harper does everything hard. During his first series with the Nats last weekend in Los Angeles, he ran into the outfield wall so hard you could hear it on television. I was reminded of Bump Bailey in “The Natural” — except Bump went right through the wall. And died.
But Harper is more Roy Hobbs than Bump Bailey, if Hobbs wore a lot of eye black and an interesting hair cut. (And let’s be clear: I couldn’t care less how he wears his hair. He’s still technically a teenager. Leave him be. Besides, if he continues to play this way, barbers across the DMV will have to learn that particular . . . I hesitate to call it a “style,” but whatever it is, because a segment of the population will be hopping in the chair and requesting “The Harper.”)
Despite Harper’s steal, the Nationals lost Sunday night, 9-3, but they won the series. In fact, they’ve won every series but one — they were swept by the Dodgers in Los Angeles. They’ve lost Werth, and they’re still without Michael Morse, but Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche return in time for the road trip that begins Tuesday in Pittsburgh. They’ve gotten amazing results from their bench, and Davey Johnson is pushing the right buttons and proving Rizzo was right to make him the manager.
The fact is, the Nationals have arrived. They have what the Phillies used to have: a stellar rotation. (Hamels probably remembers that from the old days he loves so much.) They will be a factor in the playoff race in August, September and October (when they meet the Phillies 11 times). They now have a real rivalry, with plunkings and trash talk. And this fall, when things get interesting, we’ll look back at this past weekend — and Harper’s burr-under-the-saddle presence — as the start of it all.
For Tracee Hamilton’s previous columns visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton
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