- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2008

It could have devolved into a beanball war, with the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies letting their personal feelings get in the way of a competitive ballgame.

Instead, the Nationals displayed their one, brief show of support for teammate Jesus Flores - plunking Chase Utley, the man who injured the catcher by barreling into him Tuesday night, in the first inning - and then went out and offered up the best tribute to Flores they could muster.

Playing a spirited brand of baseball, Washington twice rallied from behind to topple the Phillies 9-7 and finished off an impressive homestand in style.

Ryan Zimmerman’s solo homer in the seventh tied the game, Ronnie Belliard’s pinch-hit single in the eighth gave the Nationals the lead and Cristian Guzman’s bases-clearing double two batters later - the shortstop’s 21st hit in his last eight games — sealed the series victory over the Phillies in a game that saw a combined 39 players appear.

With the win, Washington (54-86) capped off an 8-1 homestand.

“You couldn’t ask for any better homestand,” manager Manny Acta said. “Especially the way things have gone for our fans.”

Buoyed by a host of hungry, young players, this team is starting to look similar to the one that helped ruin the Mets’ playoff hopes last September.

In taking two of three from Philadelphia, Washington may have helped New York’s cause in the National League East race. The Phillies now trail by three games heading into a weekend showdown at Shea Stadium.

“We’re confident right now, I think,” Zimmerman said. “And it’s fun to play when you have that kind of confidence.”

The day began with encouraging news about Flores: The MRI taken on his ankle revealed only a sprain, a far less severe injury than originally feared. With any luck, the 23-year-old will return behind the plate in a couple of weeks.

Flores, who initially worried he might have broken the ankle or torn ligaments, said his entire leg felt like it was asleep after Utley crashed into him in the third inning of Tuesday night’s game. He watched a replay of it Wednesday, and his reaction mirrored that of his teammates and Nationals fans: “It looks bad.”

Still, Flores (who is wearing a protective boot) echoed the sentiments of everyone else in the home clubhouse when he credited Utley with a clean play.

“I think so,” he said. “Anybody can do it. I think it was a clean play.”

How, then, would Odalis Perez’s first pitch to Utley on Wednesday night - a fastball aimed right at his hip - be categorized? The intent was obvious, so much so that plate umpire Brian Gorman issued warnings to the pitcher and both dugouts.

Perez, though, understands the code for such an occasion. If he threw intentionally at Utley, he did it the proper way, staying below the belt. Of course, retaliation includes its own risks, and with the Nationals giving Utley a free base, they set themselves up for what came next: Ryan Howard’s two-run blast to the bleachers in right-center.

“I don’t think [Utley injured Flores] on purpose, but he hit him good, and he’s out for the season, I believe,” Perez said. “Ultimately, you’ve got to pitch inside. If he likes it or not, I’ve got to pitch him inside. If I hit him, that’s part of the game.”

Washington didn’t back down to the Phillies throughout the evening. RBI hits by Zimmerman and Kory Casto in the first tied the game 2-2, and a hard-nosed play by Lastings Milledge in the fifth gave the Nationals the lead.

With runners on the corners and one out, Elijah Dukes hit a sharp grounder to third that looked like the start of a tailor-made double play. But when Utley went to make the turn, Milledge greeted him with a hard-but-clean slide, taking out the second baseman altogether and wiping out the possibility of a double play. Guzman scored the go-ahead run, and the crowd roared with approval.

But all the hustle in the world can’t overcome raw power. Few sluggers in the game can hit a ball harder and farther than Howard, as he showed Wednesday.

Howard’s two-run homer in the sixth landed almost exactly where his earlier blast did. This one gave the Phillies a 5-4 lead, but on this emotionally charged night, there was still plenty more baseball left.

“I think we’ve been playing with fire for a lot of days now,” Acta said. “The way things have been going lately, it’s just better.”

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