The difference between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals since baseball returned to D.C. has been easy to spot and vast. Losing 30 more games than you win against your rival to the northeast will do that. And the Nationals spent the first few years of their existence playing doormat to the perennial National League East champions.
But over the course of 20 innings this weekend, inside a park devoid of much of the fervent Philadelphia loyalty that has greeted this series in the past, the Nationals continued watering the seeds of change. Seeds that were planted last fall when the Nationals barrelled into Philadelphia in September and swept the team with baseball's best record in four straight games.
Saturday afternoon, mere hours after their first victorious battle of the year with the Phillies went into the 11th inning, the Nationals handed them a 7-1 blowout. It was, in the words of their manager "a smiler" instead of a "laugher," because it wasn't blown open until late, but either way it sealed the Nationals' eighth series win in nine tries.
And they did it by out-hitting and out-pitching the team that once beat them over the head with both on a regular basis. "We haven't had one of those in a while," Johnson said as he entered his post-game press conference, a wide smile on his face.
The Nationals know it'll take more than one series to change the perception of things, even if that series ends with them atop the division and the Phillies at the bottom of it, but what they did this weekend was a start.
"I felt like the ballclub we were bringing to the ballpark last year, when we went into Philly, that we could play with them," Johnson said. "I think all we're doing right now is reaffirming that we can play with them. They're shorthanded, we're shorthanded -- probably more so than them. But we can still compete with them and I think that's a good message to send."
They did it with seven innings of nearly flawless work from their starter, Gio Gonzalez. With home runs out of Ian Desmond, Jayson Werth and Chad Tracy, their No. 1, No. 4 and No. 5 hitters in the lineup. And by finally seeing their ridiculously high number of baserunners pay off in the final score.
"It was fun to see these guys swing the bat," Gonzalez said, himself doubling in the fifth inning and taking an always-entertaining trip around the bases before scoring on Werth's three-run homer four batters later. "Everybody was swinging the bat today. It was fun to watch. You could see there was life in our dugout."
The Nationals and Phillies will play one another 16 more times this season, including Sunday night on a national stage. Two games does not alter the foundation of so many years of one-sided dominance. But the standings are what they are. The Nationals, at 18-9, look down at the rest of their division, including the 13-15 Phillies. Whether they'll acknowledge that fact or not, the Nationals are aware of it. Philadelphia outfielder Hunter Pence told reporters Saturday afternoon that it felt like the Nationals' "have a chip on their shoulder."
"You can't start thinking about who's chasing who and flipping the script," said infielder Chad Tracy, who clobbered his second home run in as many games and added the Nationals' final two insurance runs in the seventh.
"At the end of the year, when we look back on everything, it'll all work itself out and we'll figure out who the best team is. This game is hard enough to focus on one game rather than try to focus on the future."
But for the Nationals, the future is an intriguing prospect. They beat Philadelphia, though admittedly weakened by key injuries, without Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse or Adam LaRoche. The 5-6-7 hitters in their order, Tracy, Danny Espinosa and Rick Ankiel, combined to go 7-for-12 on Saturday and are 14-for-24 with two walks in the series thus far. And their pitching staff continues to dominate all comers.
"We'll see," Werth said. "It's a long season... (But) with Philly banged up, playing games like that, you need to beat them."
The Nationals will play with house money on Sunday night, already having won the series, in their first Sunday Night Baseball appearance since they opened Nationals Park in 2008. They'll play with a chance at their first series sweep and for their eighth consecutive win over a team that simply isn't used to losing to them.
"It's not a big secret among baseball that we've got a good ballclub and we've got a lot of good players," Johnson said. "It is going to be fun for everybody around to see a team from Washington that's atop the division playing the division champions. I would have an interest in that, even if I wasn't in baseball.
"I think everyone will recognize we're for real," Tracy added. "We know it. Now it's just a matter of everybody else figuring it out."
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