PHILADELPHIA — The Washington Nationals weren’t spooked by the atmosphere. The sellout crowd of rabid Philadelphia Phillies fans. The playoff atmosphere. The pressure of walking into a hostile environment to face a club that is playing for everything.
None of that seemed to faze a Nationals club that hasn’t shied from any challenge this season.
Cole Hamels standing 60 feet, 6 inches from the plate? That was too much to overcome.
Washington had no answer for the Phillies’ young ace last night during a 6-0 loss at Citizens Bank Park. A lineup that battered the New York Mets all over Shea Stadium during a three-game sweep earlier this week was rendered helpless by a 23-year-old left-hander who authored the latest chapter to Philadelphia’s stunning late-season surge.
Hamels tossed eight brilliant innings of shutout ball, striking out 13 to thoroughly dominate the Nationals and (thanks in part to the New York Mets’ fifth straight loss) put the Phillies in sole possession of first place for the first time all year.
“He was just fantastic,” Washington manager Manny Acta said. “He flat-out just shut us down. We couldn’t get anything going.”
With 12 wins in its last 15 games, Philadelphia has suddenly put itself on the precipice of the franchise’s first playoff berth in 14 years. Another victory today, combined with another Mets loss, would wrap up the NL East title for the Phillies, a concept that was ludicrous two weeks ago when they trailed New York by seven games.
“We were always going to fight,” Hamels said. “That’s why our motto is the ‘Fighting Phils.’ All these teams that we’ve been playing are tough … and nobody has given in. That just makes us more appreciative when you get to that moment when you can pop that [cork].”
The Nationals still would like to have some say in how this race is decided. They’ll just have to wait another day to make a dent in the Phillies’ playoff plans.
Acta, whose contract option for 2009 was picked up by the club yesterday, is hopeful his young team will take something out of this intense weekend in the thick of the pennant race. Washington (72-88) may not be ready to play in October, but perhaps its players will draw on this experience when they do contend some day.
“This is priceless,” Acta said. “You’re getting playoff-atmosphere experience without actually being in the playoffs.”
If there were any Nationals players who didn’t grasp the magnitude of the situation when the evening began, they certainly understood it the moment they took the field in front of a standing-room-only crowd of 45,084. Waving white rally towels in anticipation of the Phillies’ first postseason berth since 1993, the fans cheered everything the hometown team did.
The biggest roars, though, weren’t in reaction to anything taking place on the field but to the constantly updating out-of-town scoreboard in right field. Every time the Marlins added to their lead over the Mets, the place erupted as though some Philadelphia player had just homered.
“It was awesome, a lot of fun,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I’ve never been in the playoffs, but that’s what I think it would be like. We had fun playing out there. Unfortunately, we went up against a good pitcher.”
Maybe so, but for four scoreless innings, Nationals starter Tim Redding matched Hamels pitch-for-pitch.
Redding, though, finally faltered in the fifth, allowing a leadoff single, plunking No. 8 hitter Carlos Ruiz and then surrendering a two-run single to Jimmy Rollins that left the crowd chanting “MVP! MVP!” for the Phillies’ dynamic leadoff man.
Rollins nearly blew a golden opportunity moments later, appearing to be thrown out trying to steal second. But shortstop D’Angelo Jimenez dropped the ball, one of three miscues by the reserve infielder. This one proved costly, because Chase Utley followed with a double off the right-field wall, bringing Rollins home with Philadelphia’s third run of the inning.
“I was able to trick them for four innings,” said Redding (3-6). “But those guys over there are good hitters.”
Jimenez contributed again to the Phillies’ fourth run, booting a one-out grounder by Ruiz that allowed pinch-runner Michael Bourn to advance to third, then throwing wild as he tried to turn a double play that would have ended the inning. Instead, Bourn scored, and the Phillies had themselves a 4-0 lead.
When cleanup hitter Ryan Howard took reliever Arnie Munoz to the opposite field for a two-run homer in the seventh, the lead had swelled to 6-0. And with Hamels (15-5) dealing on the mound, it felt twice as large, and the Nationals felt like bystanders in a playoff setting.
“Cole Hamels didn’t give them a chance to even go on the bases and show their emotions,” Acta said. “He was just fantastic, shut us down. He deserves all the credit.”