Associated Press photo
Cole Hamels tossed eight scoreless innings to improve to 7-1 this season.
Cole Hamels is good. Really good.
"He's one the best pitchers in baseball," Bryce Harper said. "He's 7-1 for a reason."
Hamels is indeed 7-1 now thanks to another dominant performance against the Nationals Wednesday night, resulting in a 4-1 victory for the Phillies.
While everyone else wanted to see what would happen when Hamels and Harper squared off for the first time since their emotionally charged encounter on national television 2 1/2 weeks ago, the Philadelphia left-hander just went out and did what he does best.
Hamels carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning, escaped a potential jam in that frame, then departed after eight scoreless, lowering his ERA to 2.17 in the process.
"It wasn't in my head at all," Hamels said of his tiff with Harper. "I had nine guys that I had to face, so it wasn't on my mind."
As was the case earlier this month in the District, the Nationals went up against Hamels with an opportunity to sweep the Phillies and make a definitive statement against the franchise they've sought to overtake in the NL East the last five years. And as was the case in that previous encounter, they were shut down by the lefty, unable to get comfortable at the plate against his assortment of pitches.
"When he's throwing 93-95 and has got that cutter working, his change-up can be devastating," said Danny Espinosa, who broke up the no-hitter attempt with a sixth-inning double. "He was throwing hard tonight, and his change-up was around 82. So when you have that much of a difference between your fastball and your changeup, that's kind of tough."
Perhaps the only member of the Nationals lineup who didn't look fazed against Hamels was Harper, who went 1-for-3 with a single and a walk and struck a flyball to deep left field in the top of the first that didn't quite carry enough. Said Harper: "I think I should've hit that ball out."
The 19-year-old's single to right in the sixth, on the heels of Espinosa's double, looked like it might get the Nationals on the board at last. But third base coach Bo Porter waved Espinosa around, and Hunter Pence fired a bullet to the plate to get him on a bang-bang play.
Espinosa got up limping a bit, and he had his lower right leg wrapped in ice after the game, though he insisted he was fine.
Porter's decision to send Espinosa was perhaps a questionable one, and it looked worse when Ryan Zimmerman followed with what would have been an RBI single. Manager Davey Johnson, though, seemed more upset that Harper didn't advance to second on the throw home, a move that might have allowed him to score on the subsequent Zimmerman single.
"I think Harper should have been on second base," Johnson said. "High throw. We would've been in better position."
The Nationals had one more opportunity to get to Hamels when Jesus Flores tripled to open the eighth, though they stranded him on third base, with Harper grounding out to end the inning and send Hamels to the dugout to a standing ovation from the crowd of 43,926.
At that point, the Nationals trailed 4-0, starter Edwin Jackson having surrendered three runs and closer-turned-mopup man Henry Rodriguez having served up a homer to Shane Victorino.
They did get one run back in the ninth when Adam LaRoche homered off Jonathan Papelbon, but it was far too little and far too late to alter the outcome of this game.
Thus, the Nationals missed yet another opportunity to sweep a series. Despite putting themselves in position to do it nine times already this season, they've yet to finish the job.
"We wish we could've got that sweep, definitely," Harper said. "But to get two out of three against them, I think, was huge."
At the end of the night, the Nationals can still boast about taking four of six games from the Phillies so far this season, not to mention their standing atop the NL East and Philadelphia's current standing at the bottom of the division.
"I think it's close. I think we've got them, though," said Phillies manager Charlie Manual, not particularly known as a math whiz.
For all the attention thrust upon this burgeoning rivalry with Philadelphia, the Nationals know they face an even bigger test this weekend in Atlanta against a Braves club that could be tied with them for first place come gametime Friday.
"The NL East is really good," Harper said. "Great pitching, great hitting. Everybody tries to battle every day. The Phillies are who we're probably going to go after the next couple years. They're good. And we're good. It's all good. Whatever."