PHILADELPHIA — There was a morning this spring that Washington Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein and outfielder Bryce Harper found themselves in a conversation about opposing starters in the National League East. Eckstein, who recalled the conversation on another morning in Viera, Fla., listened as Harper detailed exactly how he thought one particular pitcher in the division might attack him.
When Harper was done, all Eckstein could say was: “I think you’re right.”
Eckstein declined then to name the pitcher the two were discussing. But when Roy Halladay’s curveball came looping in to Harper in the third inning Tuesday night with runners on second and third, the Phillies up by a run, the 19-year-old was all over it. Secret’s out.
“I was,” Harper said, asked point blank if he was waiting for a first-pitch curve there. “Absolutely.”
“He hung a curveball to the kid and the kid smoked it,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who forced third baseman Ryan Zimmerman from the lineup with shoulder soreness shortly before gametime. “That was really the turning point.”
It was the first of four run-scoring swings the Nationals would have against Halladay in their 5-2 win, using an aggressive approach against the right-hander and taking advantage of a Phillies team that has seemingly played little brother to the big bad Nationals this season, dropping four of the first five games between them.
By scoring all five runs off Halladay, the Nationals scored more times against the two-time Cy Young winner than they had in any game since he joined the NL East in 2010. The damage was done by Harper’s two-run triple, Adam LaRoche’s sac fly, and solo shots from Ian Desmond, his eighth, and Rick Ankiel.
For years before Halladay, who also gave up nine hits, joined the division, the Nationals played doormat to their neighbors to the northeast. No more. Washington has won nine of its last 10 against the Phillies and six straight in Philadelphia for the first time in franchise history.
“The Phillies, as far as I’m concerned, are still the king of the mountain,” Johnson said. “Nobody’s really knocked them off that mountain. They’re banged up, but so are we. My guys know when we come in here, if we want to play with the best, we’ve got to beat these guys. And we’ve been doing a pretty good job.”
But beating the Phillies and their depleted lineup is one thing. Doing it with Halladay on the mound, watching him toss his rosin bag after giving up a home run and stomp toward home plate when catcher Carlos Ruiz was ejected for arguing balls and strikes, is another story. Each hitter seemed to approach Halladay differently. Harper said it was an aggressive approach. Desmond, who usually makes no apologies for his first-pitch-swinging philosophy, said he forced himself to be more patient against the right-hander. But what they had in common was some semblance of a plan. And they both had success.
“I’ve seen him sharper,” said Ankiel who struck out in each of his three other at-bats. “But he still is who he is. It seems like in the past, consistently, he’s been sharper. Tonight, he might have made more mistakes than normal. He’s human.”
The three most glaring mistakes were the first-pitch hanger to Harper, a 2-0 curve to Desmond and a cutter that ran away a little to Ankiel.
“I’ve been watching him for about three years,” Harper said. “He throws a first-pitch curveball to so many people and they just let it get over the plate. I was just really trying to get something up in that situation and get something going.”
It was more than enough for Jordan Zimmermann, who threw 108 pitches in a six-inning effort and held the Phillies to one earned run, picking up his first career victory against them in the process.
After the game, Johnson talked about his right-hander showing another gear lately, pushing himself further than he or the team might have pushed him in the past. But the sentiment could have been applied anywhere in his clubhouse. The Nationals are 26-17 with one of the longest disabled lists in the league. Zimmerman is expected to play Wednesday, but they were without him Tuesday night. They won anyway.