VIERA, Fla. - At one point late yesterday afternoon, after the Nationals-Phillies game had ended, interviews had been completed and reporters had all made our way back up to the press box to work on our postgame stories, I turned to another local writer and asked him if he had any idea what the final score of the game was.
About five minutes later, one of the Phillies beat writers, sitting a row in front of me, turned to his left and asked another writer a similar question.
“Who the hell won this game, anyway?” he said.
The final score means nothing in average spring training games. It becomes even more irrelevant after spring contests between division rivals in which an All-Star second baseman is drilled by one team’s ace and the other team’s ace responds by delivering a purpose pitch three feet off the plate.
Stephen Strasburg’s plunking of Chase Utley yesterday sure appeared unintentional. It took place with runners on the corners in an inning in which Strasburg had already allowed a run, and followed a frame in which Strasburg had sent an errant fastball past catcher Jhonatan Solano and all the way to the backstop for a wild pitch.
Roy Halladay’s fastball thrown behind Tyler Moore? That came with two outs and nobody on base and happened on the first pitch of the at-bat. Feel free to make your own assumptions there.
Both Strasburg and Moore expressed surprise that Halladay had chosen to throw behind Moore in spring training, but if Halladay’s incredibly off-target throw was indeed intentional, it was rooted in what has happened with Phillies hitters in past seasons. Halladay admitted as much after his outing.
Phillies batters were hit by pitches 63 times last year, third-most in the majors. Five of those 63 hit by pitches came via Nationals hurlers.
Utley (who missed half the season in 2007 after then-Nats starter John Lannan hit him with a pitch, breaking Utley’s hand) only played in 83 games last season and was hit a whopping 12 times. All-Star catcher Carlos Ruiz was hit 16 times on the season.
Halladay might have been sending a pre-emptive message of sorts, both to the Nationals and to the rest of the league, to back off his hitters, especially his stars. It’s just spring training, yeah, but the Nationals are the new top dog in the National League East, and you can bet the Phillies don’t want them getting too comfortable in that seat.
Will this incident linger into the regular season? Could it play a factor the first time these two times meet again, at Nationals Park from May 24-26?
Time will tell, but I will say this: Baseball players have incredibly long memories. They keep track of the positive stuff that happens on the diamond (as a recent example, Nationals catcher Chris Snyder remembered the exact count that he homered off Strasburg in the right-hander’s first spring training start last year) and they recall the unpleasant moments or dramatic incidents that perhaps even more vividly.
Yesterday’s back and forth won’t be forgotten by the players in either clubhouse anytime soon. The Nationals regulars who didn’t make the trip to Clearwater yesterday have surely seen the highlights or been briefed on what happened, and I’m sure they read all about the smile that graced Halladay’s face shortly after he claimed that his pitch to Moore “slipped.”
Moore, by the way, handled the yesterday’s situation perfectly. Still fairly new to the majors and this rivalry, Moore was upset by Halladay’s pitch, according to a teammate, but shook it off and stayed focused in the at-bat, reached second on a ground-rule double, and then downplayed the incident publicly after the game.
The 26-year-old is still trying to establish himself in the big leagues and wouldn’t have gained much by calling out a two-time Cy Young Award winner. Better to stay quiet, make comments about how you bet Halladay didn’t have a good grip on the pitch and then let your more established teammates settle the score down the road, if they feel that’s necessary.
It remains to be seen whether this will, in fact, carry over into May or even deeper into the summer. But regardless, this rivalry between the Nationals and the Phillies seems to get more interesting every time the two teams get together.