Between 1995 and 2005, the NL East division, and much of baseball, belonged to the Atlanta Braves. Following the arrival of the Washington Nationals in 2005, control of the division switched to the Philadelphia Phillies. In the past several years, however, we’ve seen another change of power. This time, the torch is being passed to the Nationals and it hasn’t always been a pretty transition.
Over the six season span between 2005 and 2011, the Phillies won five NL East division titles and made two World Series, winning the league championship in 2007. Head-to-head, the Nationals put together a dismal 49-79 record. Washington struggled to perform even in front of the home town crowd, defeating their rivals just 26 times for the D.C. faithful.
The Phillies treated the Nationals as though they were their younger brother. They picked on them and the fans had no troubles doing the same. Washington wasn’t exactly a national power at the point in time, though, as for many years they finished with a below-.500 record. All the while, however, Mike Rizzo and company continued to quietly build a team anxiously awaiting to take over not just the NL East, but Major League Baseball.
As the 2012 season arrived, the Phillies seemed poised to win their sixth-consecutive division title. Coming off of a 102-win season and returning much of their talent, it was hard to argue against the expectations set for them. In Washington, the talent was there and Davey Johnson was the right manager for the job, but the expectations were set low due to the youth in the team’s clubhouse.
In the offseason prior to the 2012 season, Washington acquired Gio Gonzalez via a trade with the Oakland Athletics to solidify a talented starting pitching staff. Jordan Zimmermann entered his first full season after Tommy John Surgery and Stephen Strasburg was back from his procedure, albeit on an innings limit. Bryce Harper was called up in early April of that year and Jayson Werth was finding his swing again.
As mentioned before, they were talented, but they were young. It was a group rag-tag guys in the field and on the bench. The sky was the limit, but the expectations were low. With the Phillies still viewed as the king of the division, not many were paying close attention to the boys in D.C.
That is, until one Sunday night in late May when young Bryce Harper delivered the first shot in Washington’s overthrow of their division rivals in Philadelphia.
At home in front of a national TV audience, the young 19-year old made his way to the batters box with two outs in the first inning. Then six-year veteran pitcher Cole Hamels promptly drilled Harper in the small of his back. Harper took his base, but the drama was far from over.
After going from first to third on a single, Harper stole home when Hamels threw to first in an attempt to pickoff the runner. Following the game, Hamels admitted to throwing at Harper, claiming that he was trying to continue an old way of baseball. While Hamels and the Phillies may have been more concerned with the good old days, the Nationals were more interested in dethroning them atop the division.
While Washington lost that contest 9-3, they ended up splitting the season-series with Philadelphia, 9-9. The Nationals, however gained the upper hand where it mattered most: the standings. The same year Hamels beaned Harper, the Nationals ended Philadelphia’s reign over by winning their first NL East Division title since moving to Washington.
The following year, while underwhelming for the Nationals, saw the tables turn even more in favor of Washington. After breaking even a year before, they won the season series with an 11-8 record, including 7-2 at home. Including their early season series with Philadelphia this year, they’ve gone 21-19 against their rivals going back to 2012.
While the Nationals have risen, the fall of the Phillies has been swift and with a thud. After their 102-win season in 2011, they went 154-170 over the next two years, including a 73-win season a year ago. Their highest finish in the division standings has been third, and currently sit at 15-14 this season and fourth in the division.
The final shot in the overthrow may have been delivered this past Friday night when the little brother stood up for itself in the fifth inning of their series-opening bout. As Denard Span settled into the batters box, pitcher Cliff Lee fired a pitch high and tight, forcing Span to turn his shoulder out of the way. Span would not be picked on and the rest of the club wouldn’t stand for it, either.
Span then grounded out to end his at bat. As he jogged back across the field, Lee began to bark at him. Standing his ground, Span turned to face the 35-year old veteran. Backing up their comrades, both benches cleared and the bullpens soon followed. No punches were thrown; no shoves were made. Words were exchanged, and with them a message was reiterated.
The Washington Nationals are no longer the NL East’s, and the Philadelphia Phillies’, younger brother. While they may have had their way with them for a while, there’s a new reign beginning in the division.