Associated Press photo
An injured Jayson Werth is escorted off the field by assistant trainer Mike McGowan.
This was the night they should have been talking about Cole Hamels openly admitting he hit Harper with a first-inning fastball on purpose, and about Jordan Zimmermann later drilling his counterpart in the leg (though insisting afterward he didn't do it on purpose).
This was the night they should have been talking about a true rivalry developing between a Nationals franchise suddenly asserting itself as a force to be reckoned with and a Phillies franchise that suddenly realizes the former doormats of the NL East are a legit threat.
But at the end of the night, all of that -- not to mention the outcome of this game, a 9-3 Philadelphia rout -- was pushed into the shadows, overtaken by the grim sight of Jayson Werth walking off the field holding his broken left wrist in place, plus the realization the Nationals are going to have to overcome yet another major injury.
"All of a sudden, we seem to be getting a little more healthy," manager Davey Johnson said. "And then boom, one of our main guys goes down."
Werth's injury -- for now diagnosed as a broken wrist, requiring a minimum of six weeks' recovery time, with a more detailed examination by a specialist to take place Monday -- came a mere 48 hours before the Nationals expect to get both Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche back on the field. It throws a wrench into Johnson's long-term plans, and it leaves the Nationals trying to hang onto first place despite the fact they've yet to field their full projected lineup once this season.
"We were looking forward to this next series, this next week, and being together again," said LaRoche, who has missed four games with a sore oblique muscle. "Obviously we're short another big bat and big part of this team for a while. So, time for everybody to step it up and help make up for that as much as we can."
Werth, who hurt himself trying to make a sliding catch of Placido Polanco's sinking liner in the sixth inning, will likely be replaced in right field by Harper. With the 19-year-old phenom moving across the outfield, Johnson will probably turn to Roger Bernadina and Xavier Nady in left field.
It won't be as easy to replace Werth's clubhouse presence and leadership.
"I think Jayson's obviously a really good player, but the things he does day-in and day-out that you guys and the fans don't get to see is obviously just as important," said Zimmerman, who missed the last two weeks with shoulder inflammation. "It stinks."
Just one example of Werth's behind-the-scenes impact: He was the one who first pointed out Hamels' slow pickoff move to Harper, planting the seed in the rookie's mind that he might have an opportunity to steal home at some point.
"Me and Werth have gone in there and looked at some pitchers throughout this series and last series and L.A.," Harper said. "Having him teach me some things on the basepaths, and really take advantage of some things pitchers do, is really great."
Harper's surprise swipe of the plate in the bottom of the first -- shortly after Hamels drilled him in the back with a fastball, and shortly after Harper bolted from first to third base on a routine single to left -- made for an electric moment on a night already filled with electricity.
The crowd of 33,058 roared with approval as a national television audience learned what Washington fans have come to realize over the last week: Harper is so much more than a physically gifted power hitter; he excels at everything on the field, including the mental game.
"This kid proved everything he needed to prove to me tonight," shortstop Ian Desmond said.
That included maintaining his composure after the initial plunking, a pitch even Hamels acknowledged was thrown on purpose.
"I was trying to hit him. I'm not going to deny it," Hamels told reporters inside the Phillies clubhouse. "You know what, it's something that I grew up watching. That's what happened. So I'm just trying to continue the old baseball -- I think some people kind of get away from it."
Told what Hamels had said, Harper let out a small laugh and proceeded to compliment the veteran left-hander.
"He's a great guy, great pitcher and knows how to pitch," the rookie said. "He's an All-Star. It's all good."
Unlike his counterpart, Zimmermann didn't acknowledge any intent in his hitting of Hamels in the leg during a third-inning bunt attempt. The young right-hander insisted he was in no way retaliating, simply trying to prevent Hamels from getting the bunt down, and he didn't even realize plate umpire Andy Fletcher issued warnings to both benches until much later.
"I mean, he was bunting, and I'm going to take an out when I can get an out," Zimmermann said. "I was trying to go away and just cut a fastball really, really bad and unfortunately hit him in the knee."
All of this, of course, was lost in the shuffle by night's end, not to mention Zimmermann's fourth-inning hiccup when he served up a two-run homer to Hunter Pence, and not to mention Ryan Perry's complete meltdown during a six-run ninth inning that turned this game into a rout.
The Werth injury cast a pall over the entire game and left the Nationals clubhouse feeling like a morgue.
Once the initial sting, though, wore off, players began to realize the significance of this entire weekend. Despite the lopsided loss in the finale, the Nationals won the first two games in impressive fashion. And they know when they wake up Monday morning, they'll still be alone in first place in the NL East ... with the Phillies still alone in last place.
And they know they've still got (at least) 15 games to play against the five-time division champs, 15 games that should take on some added meaning given the events of this weekend.
"I was actually a little surprised," Desmond said. "Usually, it seems that the Phillies aren't that hyped up to come play us. I think they realized that they needed to step up a little bit, and that's nice. It's nice to have that feeling of: 'Hey, they're intense over there.' Usually when we play them, they're not. And I think they realize we've got a good ballclub, and they needed to kind of take it up a notch."