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When the Phillies are in town - and especially when their fans show up to Nationals Park in droves - there is a different feel to those games than there are to the other 72 the Nationals play at home each year. The atmosphere is more combustible, with Phillies and Nationals fans trying to outdo each other, and it seems like things just happen a little faster.
That effect was in play as much on Saturday night as it's ever been at Nationals Park. A record crowd of 44,685 showed up, many of them Phillies fans who had bused down Interstate 95. The stadium seemed to sag when the Nationals turned a close play, and roared with every base hit for the visiting team. Perhaps more than any other game between these two teams at Nationals Park, this one felt like it was at Citizen Bank Park - a place where the Nationals don't play very well.
Davey Johnson meets with the media after the Nats' are shutout by the Phillies
And in a 5-0 loss to the Phillies, the Nationals struggled to handle just enough of those tense moments to keep the game within reach.
They mishandled an easy pickoff play when Ian Desmond took his eye off a throw in the fourth inning, and John Lannan allowed a walk and a triple after that. Michael Morse tried to make a throw to third on a bunt play where he could have taken an easy out at first in the sixth inning; Later in the inning, Jimmy Rollins brought in two runs with a single.
And on offense, though they had eight hits, they couldn't jump on enough Roy Oswalt pitches up in the zone to score any runs. By the time more than 20 busloads of fans pulled out of Nationals Park, the home team had no reaction left except resignation on a night where it felt like the visiting team.
"Their fans are unbelievable. They come wherever they play," Lannan said. "Hopefully someday, the crowd's that big, and they're all cheering for us."
Lannan, who has struggled more against the Phillies than against any other team in his career, got off to a decent start against them on Saturday night. He hadn't pitched in a week, and his fastball was uncharacteristically lively, touching 94 mph in the first inning. He matched Oswalt through the first three innings, but once his defense slipped in the middle innings, Lannan started leaving pitches up in the strike zone.
"When he sometimes gets a little tired, he humps up and his ball comes up," Johnson said. "He threw not a really good pitch selection to (Hunter) Pence - slider, about thigh-high on the inside half, which he crushed (for a sixth-inning homer). A couple other guys, he just left the ball belt-high, right down the middle. ... I think sometimes when he gets tired, he tries to get a little extra on it and brings it up."
The Nationals still have a chance to win the series tomorrow, and presumably, they'll get it without so many Phillies fans packing the park tomorrow. But they'll have to face Roy Halladay, who has never lost to them. And they left the park knowing they either need to start beating the Phillies to fill the park with their own fans, or learn to deal with these nine games a year better.
"Of course (it's different)," Morse said. "They're cheering for the other team. And you wish they were cheering for you."