Nothing to see here, folks: Harper, Hamels civil
Incident in past as opponents focus intensity on game at hand
PHILADELPHIA -- The name came quickly to Hunter Pence."Bush," Pence said. "Dave Bush." When Pence, then with the Astros, made his Major League debut against the Brewers on April 28, 2007, Bush was the opposing starter. And Bush drilled him with a pitch his second time up to the plate. "Nobody made a big deal about it," Pence said. And maybe it was simply a pitch that got away from Bush, though the fact that Pence brought this incident up leads one to believe it was one of those "welcome to the big leagues" moments. Fact is, these moments happen for many a Major Leaguer. "We're competitors," Pence said. "If you hit him in the head or something, that's threatening lives. But in Major League Baseball, we all get hit at some point, whether it's on purpose or not, and you just go with it." But when it happened to Bryce Harper a couple weeks back, and Cole Hamels owned up to the intentional onslaught by citing "old school, prestigious baseball" (earning himself a five-game suspension), it became national news. You had Hamels either getting slammed for pulling the stunt in the first place (with some particularly colorful words from a particular Nationals front-office member) or for admitting it was intentional after the fact. You had back-and-forth debates about what, exactly, "old-school baseball" is, with players, past and present, coaches, TV talking heads and fans openly discussing the game's unwritten rules. And you had people like me, debunking the entire intentional plunking practice as daft and dangerous. That's why we watched with a sort of morbid curiosity Wednesday night, as the Hamels vs. Harper Redux played out at Citizens Bank Park. We wondered if a new rivalry was brewing on the I-95 corridor. Long story short: If you're looking for a soap opera, nothing to see here. No brushbacks thrown, no benches cleared. Just Hamels' flirtation with a no-hitter in an outstanding outing, Harper's continually jaw-dropping speed and hustle and a 4-1 win for the Phillies to avoid a three-game sweep. What, you were expecting some more old-school prestige, perhaps? "Ultimately," said Hamels, "I had nine guys I had to face, so [the Harper situation] wasn't even in the back of my mind." Harper seemed to feel the same. "Everything's behind us," he said. "I haven't really thought about that since the day it happened." Well, other than the 1,500 times he's been asked about it. "Cole Hamels is a great pitcher," Harper continued. "They have a great organization and a great staff here. It's been a lot of fun coming in here and playing the Phillies. It's been a dream of mine to play here. They have 50,000 a night. It's a great atmosphere." Man, when you read that back, it almost sounds scripted. You half-expect Harper to wrap it up by saying, "I am being treated very well." And honestly, he was treated very well. No intolerable insults -- or batteries -- thrown. Sure, there were smatterings of boos each time he came to bat, but that's a regular occurrence when you're a mesmerizing and polarizing talent like the 19-year-old Harper. "They don't boo nobodies," he told USA Today earlier this week, summoning his inner Reggie Jackson. The Phillies took the precaution of having added security on-hand for this series, but, thankfully, everybody behaved. What the Phils really need to beef up is their lineup, not their security force, because -- this particular victory aside -- the continued absence of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley is dragging them down. The Nats are banged up, too. But that hasn't prevented them from making a statement here in the early going. Their 4 1/2-game edge on the five-time defending champs in the NL East isn't insurmountable, but it is a positive step. Let's be clear about one thing, though: For all the Hamels-Harper hubbub, this is not a rivalry. Not yet, anyway. "I'm sure they want it to be a rivalry," Phillies co-ace Cliff Lee said. "But I don't know. They're off to a good start, we're off to a bad start. So for us, any team ahead of us is a rival for us right now." In the other dugout, you can tell the Nats have gained confidence from these early results, but they're also realistic enough to realize neither of these two clubs has played at full strength yet, and the Braves, Marlins and Mets all serve to make the East a nightly nightmare. "Baseball is so much different than football," Nats third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We play these guys 18 times. In football, Pittsburgh plays whoever one time a year. So everybody's [fired up]. For us, that would be exhausting. It's hard enough just to stay healthy, let alone get that emotional every single day for 162 games." This series, then, was devoid of undue emotion. And the finale, unsurprisingly, was devoid of any ugly incidents involving Hamels and Harper. On the contrary, we saw both at their best. Hamels pitched eight scoreless innings, allowing just four hits with three walks and eight strikeouts -- another strong start in a strong free-agent walk year. "He was funky tonight," Harper said. "He's one of the best pitchers in baseball. He's 7-1 for a reason." And Harper showed his blazing speed on two tag-ups after a leadoff walk in the fourth. He also made a circus catch to rob Juan Pierre of a double in the fifth. Harper had a strong series, going 5-for-12, but he had already earned the Phillies' respect with the way he handled the Hamels hit job, calmly taking his base and later swiping home. The Nats retaliated that very night when Jordan Zimmermann hit Hamels (and, in keeping with that "old school" code of conduct, didn't yap about it later). "When they hit him, it was even," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "In my mind, with the way baseball's played, it was taken care of." Again, nothing to see here, drama fans. Just a potentially budding rivalry between two injury-addled teams in a deep division. And Dave Bush (now pitching for the Phils' Triple-A affiliate, incidentally) not on site.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.