Now we’re talking. Now the Washington Nationals have a rival. A real rival, not an interleague, MLB-arranged, bi-annual 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 NL 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.