It was supposed to be the Phillie vs. the Phenom. Cole Hamels vs. Bryce Harper. Lingering bad blood between two budding rivals.
That was the buildup to Wednesday night's matchup, the first between the two players since Hamels admitted he intentionally plunked the Nationals' burgeoning star on May 6. All eyes were on the lefthanded pitcher and lefthanded hitter every time Harper stepped to the plate.
Hamels was too tuned in on the business at hand -- ending another Phillies skid. He pitched Harper who finished 1 for 3 with an impressive eight-pitch walk the same as he did Jesus Flores. The same as he did Ian Desmond.
"Ultimately I had nine guys I had to face," Hamels said after again putting the Phillies back on the right track. "The incident wasn't even in the back of my mind."
What was on his mind was shutting down the Nationals. The Phillies' 2012 ace pitched eight scoreless innings and struck out eight to put a stop to the team's season-high four-game skid with a 4-1 victory over the division rival Washington Nationals (see Instant Replay). The Phillies avoided a sweep at home.
"Without a doubt, he's been big for us," manager Charlie Manuel said. "Tonight was big for us. We needed to win a game. We're going to win some more. We're not going anywhere."
"You never want to get swept at home," outfielder Hunter Pence said. "Never."
On a team with Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee pocketing the biggest paychecks and top billing, it has been Hamels (7-1) that has been the Phillies' best and most consistent pitcher this season. Halladay and Lee have a combined four wins in 16 starts. Hamels has seven in 10 starts.
Wednesday night was also the third time this season that Hamels has stopped a Phillies losing streak. Not even a little pregame hype was going to affect the red-hot lefty, who has won seven straight decisions and is 7-0 with a 1.89 ERA in the eight starts since losing his season opener.
"Ultimately, if we won 20 in a row I'm going out there with the same sort of emphasis as if we lost 20 in a row," Hamels said. "Ultimately, I like to win. I don't like to lose. I know in order to get ready for a game, I have my routine and I stick with it no matter what the circumstances are or how we're playing."
The Phillies had been playing poorly. Wednesday's series finale might have been one of their cleanest games of the season. They used good pitching, fielding (two spectacular plays a throw home from right by Pence and an over-the-shoulder catch by shortstop Freddy Galvis saved runs), small ball (a perfectly executed suicide squeeze by Juan Pierre) and the long ball to beat the first-place Nationals.
"We played good," manager Charlie Manuel said. "We played good defense. We scored some runs. We executed and got some ribbies."
Shane Victorino hit a home run. Carlos Ruiz, batting cleanup for the first time in his career, had three hits and a run scored. Mike Fontenot had a pair of hits out of the eight-hole. And, most importantly, Hamels did his job on the mound. Dominantly. The Nationals didn't get their first hit until the sixth inning.
Hamels, an impending free agent, lowered his ERA to a minuscule 2.17. He leads the majors with seven victories. In his contract year, he's pitched better than ever before in the regular season.
"He's better now because he has that cutter," said Pierre, who studied the scouting report on Hamels for several years when he was with the Marlins. "He didn't have that cutter when I faced him. He's just mature now. When I first started facing him he was a younger guy, always poised, but now you just see the maturity level in him coming out."
The total package is going to land Hamels a hefty new deal. With every solid outing, his price tag could be increasing. It's still not a thought he's taken to the mind.
"I'm just playing the game as best I know, take it one pitch at a time, one inning at a time," Hamels said. "I'm not really thinking about that sort of big picture because it's not fair to my teammates, the organization or obviously the fans if you think about the other causes of the baseball world.
"I'm here right now and ultimately trying to win for my teammates, the fans and the organization."
So far, he's been successful. Not even a little Bryce Harper controversy can stand in his way.
E-mail Jordan Raanan at firstname.lastname@example.org