The Washington Times - May 7, 2012, 01:42AM

On Saturday, after the Nationals had clinched their eighth of nine series, the question was posed throughout the Nationals’ clubhouse: is this a rivalry now?

The answers were ones of cautious optimism. In truth, the Nationals, or at least their fans, have considered the Phillies a rival for some time, as they consider all of their divisional opponents. Problem was, it was a pretty one sided rivalry. Phillies fans invaded Nationals Park when their team was in town. They won 30 more games than they lost against Washington and they played a large role in making the Nationals an NL East doormat for a while.

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“I wouldn’t have come and watched us a couple years ago either,” Ryan Zimmerman said Sunday afternoon before the Nationals would draw 33,058 in the series finale and 106,931 (mostly all Nationals fans) for the weekend. “That’s the truth. Nobody wants to watch a team that loses 100 games. It’s their hard-earned money, and it’s not easy to buy tickets now. As long as we continue to win, the fans will come, and that’s what we plan on doing.”

Doing it against the Phillies doesn’t hurt either. And with one pitch into the backside of Bryce Harper, Cole Hamels made it clear the Phillies didn’t take too kindly to the new world order that puts them at the bottom of the division looking up at the first place Nationals.

Hamels drilled Harper with his first pitch to the 19-year-old Sunday night. Ninety-three miles an hour, right in Harper’s lower back.

“I was trying to hit him,” Hamels said after the game. “I’m not going to deny it. That’s just — you know what, it’s something that I grew up watching. That’s what happened. I’m just trying to continue the old baseball. I think some people kind of get away from it… It’s just ‘Welcome to the big leagues.’”

Harper then went first-to-third on Jayson Werth’s single one batter later and, having discussed Hamels’ move with Werth and third base coach Bo Porter before the game, stole home on Hamels’ second pick off throw to first. 

When Hamels came to bat in the bottom of the second inning, Jordan Zimmermann hit him with a fastball in the right knee. He said it was not on purpose.

“No,” Zimmermann said, when asked if it was in retaliation. “I mean, he was bunting and I’m going to take an out when I can get an out. I was trying to go away and just cut a fastball really, really bad and unfortunately hit him in the knee.”

Harper, for his part, laughed when told of Hamels’ comments and said “He’s a great guy, great pitcher.” Hamels could see a suspension for his comments. But at this point that might only serve to strengthen what appears to be a burgeoning rivalry between the two teams. 

“Usually, it seems that the Phillies aren’t that hyped up to come play us,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “I think they realized that they needed to step up a little bit, and that’s nice. It’s nice to have that feeling of: ‘Hey, they’re intense over there.’ Usually when we play them, they’re not. And I think they realize we’ve got a good ballclub, and they needed to kind of take it up a notch.

“Cole did a great job. I think Bryce showed that he can handle it. He got drilled in the back his first at-bat and comes out an  impacts the game, not only with his bat but with his legs and his glove. Craig (Stammen) did a good job coming in with the bases loaded with nobody out. It was actually a great game. That was a fun game to play in, a fun game to attend. Obviously the ninth inning got away from us, but I think they were still worried.”

The Nationals and Phillies will play each other 15 more times this season, including the final series of the season, right back here at Nationals Park. The Nationals know taking two of three from them in May is nice, but it won’t mean anything if they’re not there at the end, too.

“I think it could be a really good rivalry,” Hamels said. “We’re so close. Our fans can drive down, their fans can drive up. Their team is starting to peak into a really good competitive team. The Mets have gone the other direction and the Nationals have come up. It’s going to be really exciting to see — we have 15 more games against them and it’s going to be a really good series.”

“It’s a long year and when you have a series to look forward to it makes things go a little bit quicker and the excitement really takes you to another level.”