Philadelphia Phillies' lefty Cole Hamels decided to teach Bryce Harper a lesson by hitting the Washington Nationals in the first matchup of their respective careers, but it was the 19-year-old Nats' outfielder who ended up sending a message to the veteran pitcher and the baseball world.
Philadelphia Phillies' '02 1st Rounder, left-hander Cole Hamels, retired the first two Washington Nationals he faced on seven pitches in the bottom of the first Sunday night in Nationals Park, then the 28-year-old starter hit 19-year-old Nats' 2010 1st Round pick Bryce Harper in the backside, right below the numbers with the first pitch Hamels threw to the Nationals' outfielder. Hamels would later admit that the 93-mph fastball he threw at Harper was intentional, telling reporters including the Philadelphia Inquirer's Matt Gelb, "'I was trying to hit him. I'm not going to deny it.'" Bryce Harper's response was swift. The young, often brash and outspoken National bent over at the hips for a moment, then calmly and professionally took his base.
Harper went first-to-third™ on a Jayson Werth single to left in the next at bat, running on contact and never slowing down until he reached the base and turned to see if Phillies' left fielder Juan Pierre's throw into second went awry. What happened next had the entire baseball world talking. With Chad Tracy at the plate, and Hamels ahead 1-2, the Phillies' left-hander threw over to first uneventfully, chasing the Nats' right fielder back to the bag, with Harper taking an aggressive lead off third. When Hamels tried a second throw over to first, with a deliberate, slow step and throw the Nats' rookie outfielder broke from third and stole home ahead of Philly first baseman Laynce Nix's throw to catcher Carlos Ruiz.
• Watch Harper Steal Home:
Harper slid in hard and popped up quickly as home plate umpire Andy Fletcher made the call, "SAFE!" The Nats' outfielder gave a quick shout and headed back to the dugout, glancing out toward the mound for a moment before giving high fives to Chad Tracy, who'd backed away from the plate, Danny Espinonsa, who was waiting on deck and his manager Davey Johnson, who greeted Harper at the top step. As Davey Johnson would explain after the game, when asked if the HBP had fired his young star up, you don't really need to do anything to get Bryce Harper fired up. "He doesn't need much help," the 69-year-old skipper told reporters, "He had a heck of a ballgame."
"He's fun to watch," Johnson said when asked about the aggressive approach to the game Harper's brought with him to the majors, "He got hit in the first inning and took the extra base and got a good hit. He's going to battle you." The Nats' manager was unwilling to believe, or at least say publicly that he thought the veteran Phillies' left-hander had thrown at Harper intentionally, saying, "I never think it's on purpose," and asking rhetorically in response to a question about the pitcher's intentions, "Why would you hit him?"
"I think you probably try to establish inside and probably come [in] because [Harper] kind of goes into the ball," the Nationals' manager continued. "I didn't think our guy was on purpose either," Johnson said, referring to the 93 mph fastball Jordan Zimmermann hit Hamels with when the pitcher first stepped to the plate with a runner on and one down in the third. "I mean, when you throw it down around the kneecaps when a guy's bunting... but, uh, that's just the game of baseball."
Cole Hamels, however, told a different story when he spoke the Philadelphia media after the game. (via Philadephia Inquirer writer Matt Gelb):
"Full Hamels admission: "'I was trying to hit him. I'm not going to deny it. It's something I grew up watching. That's what happened. I'm just trying to continue the old baseball. Some people get away from it. I remember when I was a rookie, the strike zone was really, really small and you didn't say anything. That's the way baseball is. Sometimes the league is protecting certain players. It's that old-school prestigious way of baseball.'"
David Hale, who covers the Phillies for DelwareOnline.com then added the following comments:
"'Tough-guy Cole Hamels on sending a message: "I'm not going to injure a guy. They're probably not going to like me for it but I'm not going to lie and say I wasn't trying to do it. I think they understood the message and they threw it right back. That's the way, and I respect it. They can say whatever they want.'"
According to reports from the Nationals' clubhouse, Bryce Harper didn't have much to say about the admittedly intentional beaning, telling reporters (including the Washington Times' Amanda Comak) that he didn't know why the Phillies' lefty would throw at him:
And Bryce Harper, informed of Hamels comments, said Hamels was a great pitcher, great guy. Had no explanation for why Hamels targeted him.— Amanda Comak (@acomak) May 7, 2012
When told Hamels had in fact done it on purpose, Harper, according to the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore, simply laughed it off:
Told Hamels admitted plunking him, Harper laughed. "He's a great guy, great pitcher, knows how to pitch. He's an all-star. It's all good."— Adam Kilgore (@AdamKilgoreWP) May 7, 2012
Davey Johnson, in talking to reporters about the play, explained that it was a former Philly whose advice might have led Harper to take the chance he did. "I was talking to Jayson [Werth] about it," the Nats' manager said, "He talked to [Harper] about [Hamels'] move and after second throw over there, [Harper] was anticipating it and he was gone. And Jayson and him discussed it along with [third base coach] Bo Porter before the game, about [Hamels having] a little slow move to first."
The Nats' skipper was impressed with the play Harper made. "I think it's an outstanding play," Johnson said, "Bo Porter is pushing it too, give credit to Bo. It's nice to jump on the board. [Hamels] is a tough pitcher for us and to get ahead of him was big." The Nationals eventually lost the lead, dropping a 9-3 decision and missing out on a chance of sweeping the series after taking the first two games at home against Philadelphia, and as impressive as Harper stealing home was, it was overshadowed somewhat by the fact that Werth ended up breaking his left wrist later in the game. But Bryce Harper once again showed the baseball world that he's a unique talent, and he responded to the Phillies' pitcher's purpose pitch the best possible way, by getting around the bases and scoring a run after Hamels had decided to teach him a lesson.
If there wasn't a rivalry between these two teams before, that one HBP in the first, and Harper's aggressive response, may have started something that's going to last for a long time between the divisional rivals.
• Nationals' Press Release Info On Bryce Harper Stealing Home:
• "Before tonight, the last swipe of home by a teenager occurred 48 years ago yesterday, on May 5, 1964, when LAA’s Ed Kirkpatrick stole home at KCR.
• "COL’s Chris Nelson (Sept. 9, 2010 vs. CIN) was the last player whose first MLB stolen bag took place at home plate. Incidentally, the initial stolen base of Cal Ripken’s HOF career was a swipe of home (May 31, 1982 s. TEX)
• "Harper is the 2nd Washington National (2005-present) to swipe home, the first to do so on a straight steal (aka NOT a double steal). Ian Desmond stole home, as part of a double steal on April 20, 2011 vs. STL