PHILADELPHIA | If the point wasn't clear when the Nationals started their 2010 season in a downpour of boos and unprintables from Philadelphia Phillies fans that invaded their park on Opening Day, it became clear on Monday.
As the Nationals try to transform themselves from a last-place club to a respectable one, these Phillies are, more likely than not, going to be sitting at the top of the division most of the time. And already this season, they've shown a special ability to irritate the Nationals.
The much-discussed Phil-up of Nationals Park on Opening Day preceded the Phillies' 11-1 drubbing of the Nationals. Washington had a chance to return the favor in the Phillies' home opener Monday, and for 3 1/2 innings, when Jason Marquis pitched hitless ball while the Nationals hung four early runs on Cole Hamels, the boos this time were cascading down on the Phillies.
But the Nationals' 4-0 lead against the Phillies turned into a 7-4 deficit in a 20-minute span that saw Marquis called for a ball for licking his fingers, manager Jim Riggleman ejected at the end of a lengthy mound meeting and a baseball pinged off the right-field foul pole for a decisive home run.
The end result surprised no one - the Phillies beat the Nationals 15 times in 18 games last year, winning a few of those games with comebacks more dramatic than this one. But afterward, several players mentioned a missed opportunity, and the point was clear.
"When you're up a few runs on that ballclub, you're playing like it's 0-0," Riggleman said. "You're not playing like you're winning. You're playing like it's 0-0 until you get to the ninth and you're trying to just match up those last couple, three outs. You never take anything for granted against that club."
The loss ended a two-game win streak for the Nationals, postponing at least for a few days their first chance to get above .500 for the first time since April 2008. They fell to 3-4, and in those four losses, they've scored first three times - including twice against the Phillies.
But things haven't turned on the Nationals in any game as quickly as they did Monday. The Phillies, playing in their home ballpark for the first time this year, unleashed their special brand of baseball on the Nationals. The two-time National League champions play the game like it's basketball; they're going to make a run at some point, and if you want to beat them, you have to withstand those runs. The Nationals didn't on Monday.
There were occasions to complain about the umpiring - Riggleman got tossed in part for arguing ball-and-strike calls he felt the Nationals might not be getting because they don't have the Phillies' pedigree - but plenty of things went wrong in the middle innings of the game apart from a few calls.
It started in the fourth inning, when Marquis, who had faced the minimum through three innings and took a no-hitter into the fourth, gave up a single to Placido Polanco. He was behind 2-1 to the next batter, Chase Utley, when home-plate umpire Paul Schreiber called Marquis for licking his fingers without wiping his hand.
MLB changed the rule before the season, allowing pitchers to lick their fingers while on the mound, as long as they're not on the rubber. Marquis said he asked Schreiber for clarification on the rule before the game, and had been making the same move the entire game - being careful, he said, to wipe his hand on his leg each time. Schreiber hadn't mentioned it to him before he was called for it, he said.
"He just said I didn't wipe to my leg, which I know I did," Marquis said. "It's a he-said, she-said type thing. I know I wiped, and if he said I didn't, obviously, the umpire has the ultimate say. I'm going to look back at the replay and see what we have."
It was with the next batter, Ryan Howard, where things unraveled.
Marquis had a 1-2 count to Howard when Schreiber called a ball on a pitch low and away. The at-bat continued, and three pitches later, Howard laced an RBI single to left.
Riggleman decided he'd had enough. He went to the mound to talk to his pitcher, intentionally lingering long enough that Schreiber would have to come break up the meeting and Riggleman would have an audience to complain about the umpire's strike zone. He got it, Schreiber tossed him immediately, and after staying on the field and arguing long enough to get his money's worth, Riggleman was off to watch the rest of the game from his office.
"I'm on the mound waiting for him to come out there, and he knows that," Riggleman said. "He finally came out, and when he came out, I told him what I thought on the pitch. So he threw me out, which is going to happen when you argue balls and strikes."
What he saw afterward was this: Marquis gave up a one-out single to Carlos Ruiz in the fifth, Pudge Rodriguez's back seized up and caused an errant throw with Ruiz trying to steal second, Juan Castro and Polanco doubled, and Utley drove a belt-high sinker off the foul pole in right, putting the Phillies up by three.
The Nationals managed only a hit and a walk the rest of the way, and their chance to switch roles with the Phillies in their home opener instead turned into a teachable moment.
"That's what they do. That's why they are a good team," catcher Ivan Rodriguez said. "It doesn't matter if it's four, six, seven, eight-nothing, they just keep playing. That's what they did today."