WASHINGTON - This was desperately billed as a rivalry here 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 fans. It was a success. Nationals supporters filled the place to watch their first-place team.
Then they stood and cheered in the 11th inning as Wilson Ramos spread his arms, carrying a 41/2-game lead over the Phillies into the night. It ended as a 4-3 Nationals victory on Ramos' bases-loaded single 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 opening salvo, with 17 more games to play in what could be a fascinating fight.
"What's going to sell tickets is if we win ball games," Johnson said. "That's the way we're going to take this stadium back."
They started by denting the Phillies bullpen. Chad Qualls coughed up a lead in the eighth and a gassed Michael Schwimer lost it in the 11th after 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.
"I'm not supposed to use him," manager Charlie Manuel said. "I don't get a chance to use him. We're not supposed to use him. We're not going to burn him out early in the season when we can't get to him."
Manuel was still dressed in his uniform despite being ejected hours earlier. Tossed six batters into the game for arguing a check-swing call, he could only express anger afterward at two more blown calls 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.
"Fair ball," Manuel said. "All night long."
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.
"It was a big run for us," Ruiz said. "It would be the difference in the game."
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.
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, 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.
As the game extended into the night, most who stayed stood. Schwimer prolonged defeat until the 11th. He was ahead of wunderkind Bryce Harper with an 0-2 count and walked him.
"It wasn't like I was scared or anything like that," Schwimer said. "It's just lack of execution and overexcitement."
Two batters later, the Nationals danced on the field around Ramos, believing they had started a new chapter in their franchise's history.