Opening Day in D.C.? Will Philadelphia Phillies fans be able to invade Nats Park again? Or will the "Take Back the Park" initiative lead to the Nationals fans filling up their own park? (photo by @RoscoeDC)
It wasn't the fact that the Washington Nationals signed Jayson Werth away from Philadelphia that made them angry. Phillies fans quickly came up with a punny way to deal with the loss and sum up what they thought about their former right fielder's true value. When Werth went out and had a 26 double, 20 HR, .232/.330/.389, +2.5 fWAR season in the first year of his 7-year/$126M dollar deal, after a 46 double, 27 HR, .296/.388/.532, +5.3 fWAR final season in Philadelphia, the joke was once again on the Nats. When D.C. GM Mike Rizzo and Jayson Werth reportedly joked about the Nats' NL East rivals last Spring, in a story that was later refuted by both the general manager and outfielder, that didn't seem to get to Phillies fans either, who laughed at the idea that any sort of rivalry between the two franchises even existed. The Nationals were, after all, 39-71 against the Phillies since moving from Montreal, and a brutal 15-39 against the Phillies from 2008-10 when Philadelphia made two World Series appearances, one of which ('08) resulted in their first World Series win since 1980 while the Nats lost 102, 103 and 93 games over the same three seasons...
Things appeared to be going in the same direction in 2011 as the Phillies were able to win five of the first six games between the two teams, taking two out of three in Nationals Park (1-2) and sweeping the first series of the year in Citizens Bank (1-5). The Nationals took two of three games in a May series with the Phillies, (3-6), and the two teams wouldn't meet again until August when they split a two-game series in August in Philadelphia, (4-7), but then the Nationals took two of three games from the Phillies in Nats Park the next weekend. A Ryan Zimmerman walk-off Grand Slam off Philly closer Ryan Madson capped off a 6-run ninth that lifted Washington to a 6-4 win on Friday night (5-7). Roy Oswalt shut the Nationals out in the Saturday game of the series, (5-8), but the Nats rallied three times in the Sunday finale with Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa homering to tie the game in the bottoms of the sixth and ninth innings before a bases-loaded Jonny Gomes' walk-off HBP in the 10th gave the Nationals a 2-1 series win and left the season matchup with the Phillies at (6-8) in Philadelphia's favor.
With four games left, all on the road in Philly, the Nationals needed to win three of four to tie the Phillies in the season series, which no one in Philadelphia really cared about since they were already headed to the postseason for the fifth straight year. It mattered to the Nationals. The Nats swept the four game series in Citizens Bank Park (against a Triple-A Phillies team, really) with strong performance by Tom Milone, Ross Detwiler, John Lannan, Brad Peacock and especially second baseman Danny Espinosa, who was 5 for 16 with a double and two HR's in 4 games to finish the year with a .313/.392/.688 line, three doubles and seven home runs in 18 games against the Phillies. The 10-8 series win was the Nats' first against Philadelphia since 2006. Meant nothing, right?
Davey Johnson, who'd taken his time making a pitching change for a favorable matchup with a 6-1 lead, no one on and two down in the top of the ninth inning of the final game, tipped his cap to the riled-up Citizens Bank crowd as he walked back to the dugout. After the game he told reporters, "You want to compete with teams in your division. That's who you, you put the bullseye on their backs. I always, every team I've ever managed, I pick out the best team that you've got to beat. When I was with the Orioles, it was the Yankees. You've got to beat the Yankees. Over here, you're going to have to go by the Braves and Phillies and we took a step in that direction."
When the 69-year-old skipper appeared on 106.7 the FAN's Mike Wise Show with Holden Kushner in November, he was asked about his old friend Sam Perlozzo, who was a third base coach on the Johnson-managed Mets and now served in the same role with the Phillies. "He's a good one," Johnson told the hosts before taking the first shot of the 2012 season, "I really like him. I just want to hand him notice too. The last couple series [with Philadelphia] is going to be the way it's going to be all year with us and [them]." Winning the season series, though, sweeping a four-game series in late-September? What did those little "victories" really mean for a 3rd place team against a Phillies club that made five-straight post season appearances?
Even after the Nationals acquired left-hander Gio Gonzalez, making a nice addition to their starting rotation, Philly.com writer Bob Brookover was dismissive when discussing the Nats in a late-December look at the Phillies' competition. "It's great that the Washington Nationals have a cast of exciting young arms and legs and they're coming off a fine season for them that would have been a failed season for the Phillies," Mr. Brookover wrote, "One of these years, they are likely to compete for the National League East title, and it could be this one. But it's still impossible to look at the young Nats and say they're better than the Phillies."
There's no rivalry though, right? At least not in Philly fan's minds. They took over Nationals Park when they wanted to, ruined Opening Day for Nats fans, celebrated winning the division in Nats Park twice in three seasons, and even overwhelmed the D.C. fan base with humiliating, "This is our house!" chants in the Nationals' home. But still, it wasn't a rivalry, really. Until now? Even the Nationals' attempts to block Philly fans from another hostile invasion with their "Take Back the Park" campaign were initially laughed off by their NL East neighbors to the north, many of whom seemed more determined to make the road trip after hearing the news.
"'Frankly, I was tired of seeing it,'" Nats COO Andy Feffer told the Washington Post's Dan Steinberg in announcing the initiative which put tickets for the first series of the season between the two teams in May on sale early and only to fans with, "... a credit card tied to an address in Maryland, the District or Virginia," as the WaPost writer noted. "'Forget you, Philly,'" Mr. Feffer continued, "'This is our park, this is our town, these are our fans, and it’s our time right now.'"
"'I want Phillies fans to acknowledge that we’re a legitimate contender and that we’re for real,'" the Nats' COO was quoted stating, "'And you know what? If Phillies fans are a little bit irked, that means they’re paying attention.'" Philly fans paid attention. "Apparently, the Washington Nationals do not want your business," Philly.com's Bob Brookover wrote in an article on the Nats' plans, "Of course, the Phillies and the fans know the best way to take back a ballpark is by winning. That's why you don't see nearly as many Mets fans as you used to at Citizens Bank Park. And you have to search really hard to find even a single Nats fan."
Proud Philadelphian and "Bones" actor David Boreanaz (@David_Boreanaz) raised his voice on the Twitter, writing, "I say stand up Philly Fans!" when he heard about the Nats' plans to "Take Back the Park!" When that didn't work, Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey (@SenBobCasey) decided to stand up for his constituents, writing on the Twitter, "I'm calling on the @Nationals to reverse course on a reported plan to block @Phillies fans from buying tickets to games at Nationals Park." In a letter to Nationals' owner Theodore N. Lerner (with COO Andrew Feffer and MLB Commissioner Bud Selig cc'd in), that was reprinted in a press release today, Senator Casey calls for the elimination of the ticket-purchasing policy which he says is an, "... unprecedented policy solely and unfairly targets Phillies fans."
Apparently some Phillies fans are irked a little bit, enough for a Senator to speak up on their behalf. How will the Washington Nationals respond? Whatever happens, the result is likely going to be a sold out Nationals Park for the May series between the two teams. The Nationals, their manager, their front office, they've been kicking the Phillies' and their fans' shins for some time now. Will it all translate to a rivalry on the field? In the stands? Among fans? John Lannan already hates him some Phillies! Remember what Chase Utley did to Jesus Flores? The Nationals may rally their fan base, or rally their rival's. What would really set things off? How about a pennant race?
• Suggestions for discussion below: No politics, please. Please don't say, "Don't Senators have anything else to do?" Don't feed the trolls.