The Phillies played their most entertaining series of the season this past weekend, and who would have thought it would be against the Washington Nationals, a team that lost 93 games just two years ago and 103 games just three years ago and 102 games just four years ago?
But times have changed and now the Nationals are a first-place team with a bright future. That’s the way it’s supposed to work in pro sports, where the worst teams get the best draft picks and a team like the Nationals should get better. It doesn’t always work that way, of course, because teams make bad decisions on big decisions, but it sure looks like the Nats have made some good ones.
But what’s even more interesting is how they’ve turned things around, because it’s the same plan the Phillies used to transform themselves from last-place losers to a team that’s won five straight division titles, not to mention a World Series and a couple of National League championships.
That’s also why Phillies fans should be very wary of the young team that plays a couple of hours down I-95.
The No. 1 thing that’s needed when building a franchise is a young, dynamic, everyday player that everyone acknowledges as their leader on the field and in the clubhouse. For the Phillies, it was Chase Utley, a perennial All-Star; for the Nationals, it’s Bryce Harper, the 18-year-old phenom who, like Utley, plays hard and smart.
The No. 2 thing that’s needed is a young, dominant pitcher around whom an entire staff can be built, an ace that gives his team a chance to win every time he takes the mound and makes sure three-game losing streaks don’t turn into four- and five-game losing streaks. For the Phillies, it was Cole Hamels; for the Nationals, it’s Stephen Strasburg, who already pitches like he’s been in the big leagues for a decade.
The No. 3 thing that’s needed is a big bopper, a home threat who can drive in runs and give other players better pitches to hit. There’s nothing like a three-run homer to lift a team and the Phillies had Ryan Howard as their clean-up hitter. The Nationals have also done a good job filling that role with third-baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who hit 55 homers and drove in 191 runs the last two seasons. The Phillies didn’t even see Zimmerman in the weekend series because he’s on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation. Zimmerman should come off the DL this week.
All three of those cornerstones – Harper, Strasburg and Zimmerman – were high first-round draft picks. Harper and Strasburg were the No. 1 overall selection in 2010 and 2009, respectively, and Zimmerman was the No. 4 overall pick in 2005.
The Nationals have also done something now that the Phillies did then – they’ve surrounded those star players with solid role players, including one who helped both teams turn around their fortunes – outfielder Jayson Werth, who was put on the disabled list on Monday after breaking his wrist in the Phillies’ victory on Sunday.
There’s another important similarity between the two teams – both have ownership groups that are willing to spend money to bring in big-name free agents. And they can do that because the Nationals, like the Phillies before them, have a nice, new stadium that’s a fun place in which to watch a game on a nice summer night, a place with old-time ambience and new-time amenities.
What they don’t have is the Phillies’ rabid fan base, for the simple reason that a lot of the people who live in Washington aren’t from Washington. Still, everybody likes a winner and if the Nats keep winning — especially if they do it with a young, dynamic, fun-to-watch team like the Phillies did – the fans will come. And that will also create the kind of atmosphere that makes blue-chip players want to play there.
As for the present, if you don’t think there’s already a rivalry between these two teams, it should have been dismissed in the first inning of Sunday’s game, when Hamel’s first pitch to Harper smacked him right in the back. Hamels later admitted that it was his way of welcoming Harper to the big leagues, but it’s also a fact that nobody would care if the Nationals were still the sad-sack team they were ever since they landed in Washington from Montreal in 2005.
So, the good news is that the Phillies have a new rivalry with a division team that will be fun to watch. The bad news is that the Phillies are old and the Nationals are young and it’s just a matter of time – and perhaps not much of it – before the balance of power in NL East shifts to the south.
Contact Kevin Noonan at [email protected]