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Phillies-Nationals has makings of NL East rivalry, but it's not just yet

Yes, Hamels plunked Harper in a welcome-to-the-big-leagues initiation and, yes, he had the gall to admit it. He earned a suspension for himself and a fine for Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo after Rizzo told the Washington Post that Hamels was "fake tough" and that he had "never seen a more classless, gutless chicken [bleep] act in my 30 years in baseball."

But a rivalry is a recurring struggle between near-equals and one that is settled in back-and-forth play on the field. The other shenanigans -- which also apparently included a pocket of Phillies fans jeering injured Nationals rightfielder Jayson Werth as he exited a game with a broken wrist -- are merely tempers flaring between antagonizing teams. That's not a celebration of a true baseball rivalry.

The kindling, however, does exist for the Nationals and Phillies to one day turn their games into must-see events that national networks clamor to add to their programming. There's proximity in both geography and division; there's a similar dependency on great starting pitching; there are divergent personalities; most of all there's an abundance of talent on both sides.

For now, however, recent history negates the label. Though the Nationals -- who defeated the Phillies 2-1 Monday night to improve to 25-17 -- have now won three of four meetings this season and 12 of 15 dating to May 31 of last year, the Phillies had previously gone 77-40 against the Nationals since they moved to Washington in 2005. Philadelphia won five straight National League East titles and one World Series championship during that span.

"I wouldn't define this as a rivalry," Philadelphia centerfielder Shane Victorino said. "There has to be way more history than what's going on now."

"However many years they've won the division," Washington third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said of the Phillies, "it's hard to look ahead that much. They're the team that has won every year and they're the team to beat. Until someone beats them, they're the team. I think people look into it too much, 'us and them' and all that."

Earlier in the day Harper stood at the end of the tunnel that leads from the clubhouse to the dugout. He calmly clutched a bat and gazed out into the mostly empty Citizens Bank Park. It was three hours before the first pitch of his first game here and of the first meeting between the Nationals and Phillies since Hamels intentionally hit Harper with a fastball in his back (Harper got revenge by subsequently stealing home).

Harper told reporters in Washington the previous day that he hoped to hear a couple of boos, but in addressing the media before the game, the 19-year-old Nationals rookie was effusive with his praise for the Phillies. Harper said they had a "great organization" and a "great fan base" and that the City of Brotherly Love has always had "great history" in all of its sports.

The Hamels incident -- and the purportedly burgeoning rivalry -- was apparently far from his mind. (Hamels declined to comment.)

"I'm not even thinking about that," Harper said. "It's a new series, a new day. I have a lot of respect for everybody in the other dugout."

Harper heard his fair share of boos, though it was far from outlandish, and went on to smack two singles and steal a base. Rain seemed to dampen fans' spirits on Monday, quieting a 226th straight sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park. Fans also didn't have much to cheer about until the late innings: Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez tossed six shutout innings and shortstop Ian Desmond drove in both Washington runs on a solo homer and an RBI single.

"We play every game as hard as we can," Desmond said. "It's not like we have to rise to the occasion."

The Nationals are 25-17 and a ½ game out of first place, while the Phillies are, uncharacteristically, in last place at 21-22. The teams play twice more in their current series -- with Hamels starting Wednesday night -- and still a dozen more games this season after that. Both teams have sustained major injuries, meaning that future contests could feasibly go in either direction, depending on who's healthy at the time.

In the offseason, the Nationals added starters Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to join Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, forming one of the game's hardest-throwing and most effective rotations. Now Washington has a reasonable facsimile -- though younger and with a fraction of the track record -- of the great Philadelphia staff headlined by Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Hamels and Vance Worley.

"They're full of life," Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel said of the Nationals. "Some of the new players brought a lot of energy to the team and, not only that, a lot of talent to their pitching. They carried a lot of want-to and a lot of energy."

If there's a common temperament in the two clubs' approaches, credit the crossovers. Werth and reliever Brad Lidge were teammates in Philadelphia for three seasons, including the title year, before the two veterans came to Washington.

In spring training Lidge revealed that in conversations with Werth last year, his former teammate insisted that Washington's talent level was "ridiculous" and that the praise resonated with the reliever because the pair shared the same experience in Philadelphia.

Washington's goal now is to dethrone Philadelphia -- and there's no doubt the Nationals understand that's the pecking order until proven otherwise -- and supplant it as the team to beat in the East.

"There's definitely some similarities, but right now obviously the big difference is that guys like Roy, Cliff and Cole have already been there and done everything," Lidge said. "Whether it's this year or next year or whatever, for the Nationals it's coming.

"It's a good start of a rivalry, if nothing else."

For now, it's only that -- a start. But, given time, it could grow into something much more.