WASHINGTON - This was desperately billed as a rivalry in the nation's capital. Signage around Nationals Park was changed to read "Natitude Park" as part of a marketing campaign designed to attract more home than visiting fans to see baseball. It was a success; Nationals fans filled the place to watch their first-place team.
They stood and cheered in the 11th inning as Wilson Ramos spread his arms, carrying a 4.5-game lead over the Phillies into the night. It ended as a 4-3 Nationals victory while the message "OUR PARK" was flashed on the scoreboard.
The Nationals can try as many slogans and promotions as they want, manager Davey Johnson said beforehand. But it won't be a rivalry until they actually beat the Phillies. Consider Friday the salvo with 17 more games to play.
Chad Qualls coughed up a Phillies lead in the eighth and a gassed Michael Schwimer lost it in the 11th when he loaded the bases on a single and two walks. The Phillies lost on a walk-off hit for the fifth time this season. In all five games, they did not use $50 million closer Jonathan Papelbon.
They could only express anger afterward at two blown calls in the seventh inning that cost them a run.
The umpiring crew was shortened to three because Joe West was sidelined by illness. In the seventh, with a runner on second, Carlos Ruiz pounded one down the third-base line. Home-plate umpire Rob Drake had to make the fair or foul call from behind home plate and ruled foul. Replays showed it was fair.
Later, with Ruiz still batting, Shane Victorino dashed for third. He beat Steve Lombardozzi's tag, but again, Drake had to make the call from a distant vantage point. Victorino was called out stealing; Ruiz singled to right soon after.
By then, Charlie Manuel was long gone. When Bryce Harper checked his swing on a Kendrick cutter in the first inning, Drake pointed for an appeal at third. But there was no umpire there. So Harper was awarded a walk.
Manuel screamed something from the dugout and was ejected six batters into the game. He sprinted onto the field for his money's worth, angrily stuffed his lineup card into bench coach Pete Mackanin's hands, and cursed once more at Drake before disappearing for the night.
Until the later innings, it was plausible the Phillies could win a game mockingly dubbed the "Battle of the Aces" by Kyle Kendrick. He, of course, opposed Stephen Strasburg, the majors' ERA leader.
"Why couldn't it bring out the best in Kendrick?" Manuel wondered beforehand.
That was merely optimism, and after one inning, it was shaky at best. Strasburg retired the Phillies on eight pitches, including a 91 m.p.h. change-up that Jimmy Rollins hopelessly fanned at. Then Kendrick barely escaped chaos by walking a tightrope in the bottom half. That was a harbinger.
Strasburg had faced 259 righthanded batters in his brief career and only one had hit a home run before Hunter Pence jolted a first-pitch hanging curveball over the left-center fence in the fourth inning. An inning later, Carlos Ruiz made it two homers smashed by righties with a solo shot to the deepest part of the ballpark. It was the first time Strasburg had surrendered two long balls in a start.
Once he was made human and Pence rounded the bases, cheers of "Let's Go Phillies!" permeated the crowd. The Nationals attempted to restrict group sales, thus making it harder to see the pockets of out-of-towners. But there were noticeably fewer among the announced attendance of 34,377.
Washington had 10 baserunners in the first four innings against Kendrick and scored only once. Nationals hitters actually swung and missed at more Kendrick pitches (seven) than Phillies whiffed at Strasburg offerings (six).