Cole Hamels was clear about his intentions when he talked about hitting Bryce Harper with a pitch the first time he faced the Washington Nationals' then-19-year-old outfielder in an early May game last summer. The Philadelphia Phillies' then-28-year-old lefty, an '02 1st Round pick, hit Harper square in the back with the first pitch he threw to the 2010 no.1 overall selection. "'I was trying to hit him. I'm not going to deny it,'" Hamels told reporters including the Philadelphia Inquirer's Matt Gelb later that night after Harper had worked his way around the bases and stolen home after the HBP and after Hamels himself had been hit by a pitch from Jordan Zimmermann that the Nats' starter said simply got away from him. Hamels openly explained his thinking in hitting Harper to reporters:
"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."
You might remember Nats' GM Mike Rizzo's response to those comments. "'I’ve never seen a more classless, gutless chicken [bleep] act in my 30 years in baseball,'" Rizzo told the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore. The Nationals' General Manager wasn't done there:
"'Cole Hamels says he’s old school? He’s the polar opposite of old school. He’s fake tough. He thinks he’s going to intimidate us after hitting our 19-year-old rookie who’s eight games into the big leagues? He doesn’t know who he’s dealing with.'"
Nope. Still wasn't done:
"'This goes beyond rivalry and all that stuff,' Rizzo said. 'This points to, you take the youngest guy in baseball. He’s never done a thing. And then Hamels patted himself on the back. Harper’s old school. Hitting him on the back, that ain’t old school. That’s [bleeping] chicken [bleep].'"
Hamels was suspended five games for the HBP. Rizzo was fined by MLB for his comments. It's not like there wasn't already a rivalry between the two teams. One of the Nationals' major marketing initiatives in 2012 involved them "Taking Back" Nationals Park from the Philly fans who regularly "invaded" the Nats' home. The Nats' needled their neighbors to the north repeatedly over the last two-plus years with Rizzo, Jayson Werth and Davey Johnson all commenting publicly about gunning for the team that had dominated the NL East in recent years.
Jimmy Rollins started things up this year by claiming that the Nationals wouldn't have won the division if the Phillies had been healthy, ignoring of course the fact that Werth missed significant time, as did Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos, Drew Storen, etc. Rollin's former teammate responded early this Spring by saying that the Nationals might have won 120 games if they had been healthy, instead of the 98 it took to break Philadelphia's streak of five-straight division titles. That was all talk, however.
Things picked up a little bit in the first official game of the year between the NL East rivals. In the third inning of this afternoon's game Stephen Strasburg let loose a fastball that connected with Phillies' second baseman Chase Utley's back foot. Utley shook it off and took his base. The infielder stayed in the game. With two down in the top of the fourth inning, Roy Halladay apparently decided to send a message of his own. The veteran right-hander threw a fastball behind Nats' outfielder Tyler Moore's back. Did he do so to send a message? He told the Philadelphia Inquirer's Matt Gelb afterwards that it "slipped":
"'Really, I think, we do need to protect our guys to an extent," Halladay said, unprovoked. "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.'"
Strasburg was asked by reporters, including the Washington Post's James Wagner, if he had intentionally hit Utley? Strasburg's response:
"'I don't have any reason to throw at him, do I?'"
At least Halladay learned from Hamels not to openly admit it afterwards. Davey Johnson thought the same thing. "'Maybe Hamels is coaching him,'" the Nats' skipper joked with reporters including the WaPost's Mr. Wagner after the game, but he also said it was, "'Much ado about nothing.'"
(ed. note - "Here's video of Hallday's comments, actually sounds like he means it when he says it 'slipped,' though he does smile a little when saying it the first time."):