Hamels vs. Harper 2? All good
Latest confrontation of honest lefty vs. top prospect reflects mutual respect
PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Phillies run a regular between-innings feature on the Citizens Bank Park scoreboard in which players respond to a question of the day. In one recent query, Phillies fans were asked, "Which player on the team do you think would make the best president?" Pitcher Cliff Lee garnered a few votes for his persuasiveness, but most of the support went to Cole Hamels for his good looks, great hair, intelligence and flair for articulation.
The biggest thing standing between Hamels and a political career is his penchant for honesty, no matter where it leads. Hamels is never going to pander -- on taxes, immigration or precisely where he intended to put that 93-mph fastball to Bryce Harper the night of May 6 at Nationals Park in Washington.
Hamels recently received a five-game suspension for flexing his "old school" chops and drilling the rookie in the back, and then admitting his intent with reporters. So it was only natural that there would be some residual buzz when the two players faced each other Wednesday in Philadelphia.
But just as Kevin Youkilis and Bobby Valentine seemed to work through their differences and Ozzie Guillen turned down the heat in his clash with Cuban fans in Miami, this perceived "feud" has run its course. It had the shelf life of the mysterious Icy-Hot that infiltrated Stephen Strasburg's jockstrap during a recent start for the Washington Nationals.
Chapter 2 proved to be a showcase for Hamels, his concentration and his all-around repertoire. He threw 114 pitches over eight shutout innings to lead the Phillies to a 4-1 victory in the finale of a three-game series. The win allowed the Phillies to avoid a sweep, and snapped a six-game losing streak against Washington at Citizens Bank Park. It also marked only Philadelphia's fourth win in the teams' past 17 meetings.
Hamels came off looking peevish for the Harper incident, but he had backed it up with eight sterling innings in a 9-3 Philadelphia victory. He also took a Jordan Zimmermann fastball off the shin during a subsequent bunt attempt, because he didn't have the luxury of hiding behind the designated hitter rule. That didn't prevent Nationals GM Mike Rizzo from going on a lengthy rant, during which he referred to Hamels as "fake tough" and "gutless."
But the passage of time convinced both managers to predict that it would be baseball-as-usual in the rematch. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said he thought the teams were starting from square one, and Washington's Davey Johnson pronounced it a "dead issue."
"As far as I'm concerned, it was just an off-the-cuff remark from a left-handed pitcher," Johnson said. "Lefties have a tendency to be a little different."
Hamels has some history for uttering uncomfortable truths, whether it's agreeing with a New York radio host that the 2008 Mets were "choke artists" or telling reporters that he couldn't wait for the 2009 World Series to end because the season was so "mentally draining" for him. But if he had any remorse over the Harper incident -- or if he's given it any thought whatsoever -- he has no desire to admit it. When asked if ballplayers have some kind of mechanism to keep outside distractions from creeping into their heads, Hamels demurred.
"I don't know how to answer that," he said, "because it wasn't in my head."
Harper performed well in the rematch, too, making a juggling catch in right field, doubling up Juan Pierre with a throw, and tagging up and advancing on two fly balls as if his life depended on it. Unlike Hamels, Harper acknowledged that some residual suspense existed. But he considers the dispute history.
"I don't think anybody really cares about it anymore," Harper said. "Maybe that's the reason we [were on] 'Wednesday Night Baseball' tonight. It was pretty cool to be on ESPN."
Lost in the storyline is how important the two players have been to their teams this year. The Phillies rank in the middle of the pack among NL clubs in most offensive categories, and Manuel made a statement by giving catcher Carlos Ruiz his first career start in the cleanup spot. Fittingly enough, Ruiz went 3-for-4 to enhance his All-Star push and further endear himself to adoring Phillies fans. Then he suffered a bruised wrist that required X-rays, which turned out to be negative. He's day-to-day.
While Ryan Howard and Chase Utley continue their rehabs with no definitive finish line, Vance Worley deals with a bone chip in his elbow, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee are working through a good-but-not-great phase and Manuel keeps looking for more consistency from the guys in front of Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen, Hamels is giving the Phillies everything they could ask and more. Since losing to Miami in his 2012 debut, he's 7-0 with a 1.89 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 57-to-13.
"He's got a lot of determination," Manuel said. "He's a lot different than what you see. If you get to know him, he's a mentally tough guy. When he goes out there, he goes out there to beat you. He has a lot of conviction and confidence in his pitches.
"I think he handles things pretty good. I know what he said [in Washington] didn't come across right, and he could have been a little more discrete about it. But at the same time, it sounded to me like he was kind of having a good time and made the statement. He probably wishes he could take it back -- I don't know."
Hamels threw three pitches to Harper in the first inning and induced a fly out to left field. He walked Harper on eight pitches (seven changeups) in their next encounter, and allowed a single to Harper in the sixth. But Hunter Pence threw out Danny Espinosa at the plate to deprive Harper of an RBI. In Harper's final at-bat against Hamels, he hit a routine grounder to third base in the eighth.
When the Nationals boarded the team bus to the airport after the game, Harper was hitting a respectable .267 with a .350 on-base percentage. But he's making a positive impression on his teammates in ways that transcend numbers. The veteran Nationals love the way Harper works, runs the bases and seems to be more discerning every day about doing and saying the right things. Before games, Harper sits at his locker with a red bandana around his head and a monster pair of headphones shutting out the outside world. Immersed in his iPad, he is the picture of focus and concentration.
"He has the right mind for the game," Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "He's intelligent, and when he sees or hears something, he soaks it in and he's able to take it and use it, which is just a huge value in this game. Baseball-wise, he is mature beyond his years. You have a guy who's stepping into a first-place team and jumping right in the middle of the lineup and winning some games for us at age 19. That just doesn't happen too often."
It looked like the Nationals were rushing Harper when they promoted him to the big leagues after 459 minor league at-bats. But injuries to Jayson Werth and Mike Morse and some unproductive performances by other Washington veterans have given Harper lots of exposure, and he's playing like a kid who plans to stick around.
"The only reason I know he's young is when I look over and see some of the girls who follow him," Johnson said. " 'Harper's hotties,' or whatever they're called. They look like they're about 16. But I look at him and he looks like a big leaguer. I don't look at him as a teenager or whatever. He handles himself like a big league ballplayer."
Hamels, who is eligible for free agency this winter, could either sign a long-term deal, play out the string or be shopped in July if the Phillies are floundering. But he's likely to have a few more encounters with Harper before this season is through. And there will be no more talk about fastballs in the back.
"They're good and we're good," Harper said. "It's all good."
It's not a love affair between the Phillies and Nationals by any means. But it sounds a lot like mutual respect.