CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It's only spring training. The land of waving palm trees. The land of make-believe baseball. The happiest month and a half of the baseball year.
Until a pitch from one team's ace plunks the other team's No. 3 hitter in the shin.
And then a pitch from the other team’s ace sails behind the back of the other team's cleanup man.
And it becomes clear, right there in the middle of a Grapefruit League game, that rivalries never sleep. Even in spring training.
That was the fascinating turn of events in Clearwater on Wednesday, when the Nationals showed up to play the Phillies in what was supposed to be a fun little spring duel between Stephen Strasburg and Roy Halladay.
Well, they dueled, all right. But the "fun" was in the eye of the beholder.
In the third inning of this tussle, Strasburg appeared to accidentally nail Chase Utley in the left shin with a fastball that slipped away. Utley never said a word, never shot a glance, never did anything to signify an NL East skirmish was about to bust out. But
A half-inning later, with two outs and nobody on, up stepped Tyler Moore, hitting fourth for the Nationals on this day, when most of the regulars were spared the 2½-hour bus tour of central Florida.
Halladay turned, took a stroll to the back of the mound and appeared to say something to Utley. Then, whaddaya know, Halladay's first pitch just happened to fly two feet behind Moore's back and skidded to earth on the warning track behind the plate.
It was quite the what-the-heck-just-happened moment. But considering this was a pitch thrown by Roy Halladay, owner of one of the three best strikeout-walk ratios of the live-ball era, "inadvertent" didn't seem to be the best way to describe it.
Afterward, Halladay did claim on several occasions that the pitch had "slipped a little bit." But then he was asked about something he'd said earlier in this camp, in which he admitted that Utley had "suggested drilling a few guys this year. So I might mix that in."
"No, it slipped," he said at first. “But you know, I mean really, I think that's not necessarily the case, but we do need to protect our guys to an extent. I'm not saying that's what happened. It slipped. But I think that's important. We've had a lot of guys hit over the years. And I think, as a staff, we need to do a good job of protecting those guys.
“In spring training, I don't think you're necessarily trying to do it,” he went on, innocently enough -- but then, out of the blue, here it came, the money quote:
"But," he said, purposefully, "it wouldn't have been the worst thing had it got him after [Strasburg] hit one of our good guys."
So then it was Strasburg's turn. Asked if he'd just lost his grip on the pitch to Utley, on a chilly, wind-swept afternoon, he replied: "I don't know. I don't have any reason to throw at him, do I?"
So then he was asked if he thought the Phillies were trying to send a message back with Halladay's pitch to Moore. Strasburg seemed perplexed.
“I don't understand why they would think I was throwing at him," he said. "Obviously, you could tell the conditions weren't great. I yanked it in there. It's spring training. If you're going to throw at someone or send a message in spring training, go ahead."
You could almost envision him taking a quick mental note, for future reference.
And now, finally, let's hear from Moore, who looked up at his locker after the game, saw a bunch of reporters march through the door, smiled and asked: "What?"
Asked what went through his mind when a pitch from a control aficionado like Halladay sailed behind his posterior, Moore deadpanned: "He missed a little inside."
When the laughter died down, Moore said, "[Halladay]'s a competitor, man. I don't know if he was protecting his team or what. But he knows that it's spring training. He's a professional, done this for a long time, and maybe it just slipped out of his hand."
Yeah. Maybe. But Moore's best quip came in the dugout, when his manager, Davey Johnson, approached him.
“Is there some kind of history with you and Halladay?” Johnson said he asked.
“There is now,” Moore joked.
No kidding. But now that we've allowed all the witnesses to testify, it's still fair to ask if there was any sort of deeper meaning in all this. And let's be honest here:
Of course there is.
How can anyone believe, given the recent history between these two teams, that this was just another day at either of their offices?
This, after all, is a rivalry that's had it all. Cole Hamels drilling Bryce Harper and admitting he'd done it on purpose. Nationals GM Mike Rizzo getting fined for ripping Hamels publicly. The Nationals attempting to ban Phillies fans from their ballpark. Pointed banter ping-ponging back and forth this spring between Jimmy Rollins and his old friend, Jayson Werth. And, of course, the Nationals supplanting the Phillies as the NL East champs and clear-cut Team to Beat in 2013.
So when someone mentioned to Johnson after the game that the Phillies seemed awfully focused on his team these days, the manager enjoyed that thought immensely.
“I hope so,” he said. “The Phillies had a great run. It's nice now that they're thinking about us. It's been a while.”
And when reporters relayed Halladay's quotes to Johnson and asked if, after hearing them, he then was convinced Halladay had launched that pitch to deliver a message, the manager deadpanned: “Maybe Hamels is coaching him. I don’t know.”
But what both sides know is that they have to play each other 19 times this season. And let the good times roll.
“It's definitely going to be a fun season,” Moore said, “playing them so many times.”
And across the field, in the other clubhouse, Laynce Nix, who has played for both of these teams, made it clear that when Utley got drilled by a guy who “had really good control today, at least with all the pitches he threw to me,” that wasn't a development the Phillies could just shrug off as no big whoop. Even on March 6.
“I know it's just spring training,” Nix said. “But we can't have our guys getting hurt, whether it's an accident or on purpose. Look, I don't really see those guys doing it on purpose. But it just is what it is. When a guy like Chase gets hit, we don't appreciate it too much.”
So Nix had no qualms about declaring this one of the best rivalries in the game.
“I think it is, whether guys want to admit that or not,” he said. “It absolutely is.
A couple of things have happened where it could have gotten ugly and it didn't seem to, with Bryce getting hit last year and things like that.
“The Nationals responded by winning games,” Nix added. “So the best response for us is to start the season clicking and send the message that we're here to win games.”
For the record, they'll have plenty of time to get their on-field messaging in gear. These teams don't play each other until Memorial Day weekend in Washington. So all they can do for the next 2½ months is replay the purpose pitches they threw Wednesday -- and keep talking the talk 'til they meet.
“Talk is cheap,” Johnson said. “I don't get too involved in all that. Let it happen on the field.”
Excellent idea. We're ready any time they are.