In a jubilant postgame clubhouse, after Jonny Gomes’ hit-by-pitch gave the Nationals a walk-off win over the Phillies in unusual fashion, Ryan Zimmerman was asked if this is a series the team would have won in past years - with record crowds packing Nationals Park to cheer on the visiting team and two games heading into the ninth inning with the Phillies three outs from victory.
Zimmerman took a circuitous route around the question.
“It’s fun to play in that atmosphere,” he said. “Obviously, we’d like it to be more of our fans in the future. But if you want to get fans like that, you’ve got to win. They’ve won World Series, and they go to the playoffs every year. It gives us something to shoot for. I think our fans are great. They’ve stuck with us through a lot of tough times the past three or four years. We’re finally starting to show them we’re getting close. And I think once we start winning, and hopefully get to a level like that, our fanbase will be just like theirs.”
Instead, let’s take a stab at answering it for him: No, the Nationals don’t win a series like this in the past. Not like that.
Not with a six-run rally on Friday off a closer who’d only blown one previous save attempt this year, and not with a two-strike, two-out homer off a sublime setup man in the ninth inning, followed by a walk-off hit-by-pitch in the 10th inning on Sunday.
The Nationals won 5-4 on Sunday, and have now taken five of seven against the Phillies. And on a weekend where Philadelphia’s fans packed Nationals Park to a greater degree than they’ve ever done before, the Nationals made a pretty convincing case they’re gaining ground - certainly not enough to compete with baseball’s best team yet, but enough to suggest that date might not be far off.
On Sunday, they scored two runs in the first inning off Roy Halladay, and thanks to a well-timed rain delay, they were done with the 2010 Cy Young winner after five innings. Danny Espinosa, who hadn’t homered since July 17, tied the game on the second pitch of the sixth, and after the Phillies scored off Drew Storen in the top of the ninth, Ian Desmond ripped a game-tying homer on a 1-2 pitch from Antonio Bastardo, silencing the Phillies fans who thought the game was a pitch from being over.
That set up a 10th-inning rally where the Nationals loaded the bases with none out, and when Brad Lidge’s pitch nipped Gomes’ elbow, Zimmerman crossed home plate with the final run for the second time in the series. The first came on Friday after his walk-off grand slam; this time, he strolled home after taking a half-second to process what had just happened.
For the Phillies’ fans, it might have taken longer.
“I think there’s something special going on here,” said reliever Sean Burnett, who got the win after pitching a scoreless 10th inning. “I think the fans can see it. We, of course, know it in here. But I think in the next year or so, it’s going to be a fun little rivalry, because you can see the intensity their fans bring. As we start to compete better with them, it’s going to be fun.”
To a man, the Nationals said the invasion of Phillies fans didn’t rattle them on the field - they like playing in front of big crowds, whether wins serve to ignite or silence those fans.
But let’s remember where the Nationals have been in the past against Philadelphia; they’ve watched the Phillies clinch the division against them in 2007, 2008 and 2010. They lost 15 times against them in 2009, including a game where Joel Hanrahan walked Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth because he was afraid of giving up a home run, and then gave up a grand slam to Raul Ibanez anyway. They got dropped 11-1 on opening day last year in front of hordes of Phillies fans, and were swept in their last trip to Philadelphia last year when Werth hit a walk-off homer against Drew Storen.
This year, they’re 6-8 against a team that’s routinely tormented them, with an outside shot of splitting or winning a season series against the Phillies for the first time since 2006. The roster is now mostly populated with veteran players who weren’t around for the 15 losses in 2009, and a good number of them weren’t here for the opening day embarrassment last year. And while they’re not going anywhere significant this year, they’re on their way to their best season since 2005, with a shot at a .500 record if they win three more than they lose the rest of the way.
If giving Werth $126 million over seven years was imprudent from a baseball standpoint, it at least made the bold statement the Nationals have been trying to drive home all year - that they intend to catch the Phillies. They’ll have Stephen Strasburg heading their rotation in 2012, and could add Bryce Harper at some point, as well as a free agent or two who might take notice of the Nationals because of what they’re doing this season and the cash they’re all of a sudden willing to spend.
Wins like the one they had Sunday help to lay that foundation. And as the Phillies and their fans packed to head back up Interstate-95 after the game, the Nationals had a right to feel like they might be doing so with a thought or two in the back of their minds.
“It fires us up (when their fans come to Washington). We take it a little bit personal,” Burnett said. “Hopefully in the next year or so, we’re going to fill the seats up with our people, and hopefully we’ll take over their stadium too, in the next couple of years.”