PHILADELPHIA -- It was early March in Viera, Fla., when Bryce Harper and Rick Eckstein were chatting around the batting cage at the Nationals' spring training complex, talking about how to approach certain big-league pitchers. Harper brought up one prominent NL East hurler in particular, and stunned his hitting coach with his intimate understanding of a pitcher he'd never actually seen in person.
"This is what he's going to do," Harper told Eckstein that morning. "And when he does it, this is where it's gonna go."
The pitcher in question was Roy Halladay. And when finally presented the opportunity to face the two-time Cy Young Award winner Tuesday night, Harper stepped to the plate knowing exactly what to expect from the Phillies ace.
"I've been watching him for about three years," the 19-year-old outfielder said. "He throws a first-pitch curveball to so many people, and they just let it get over the plate. So I was just really trying to get something up in that situation and get something going. We had two guys on, and you had to get them in."
Sure enough, Halladay's first pitch to Harper in the top of the third inning was a "get-me-over" curveball. And sure enough, Harper was waiting for it and sent it on a beeline to right-center field for the two-run triple that put the Nationals on top and set them on their way to an impressive, 5-2 victory.
By night's end, Harper was far from the only one to get a shot in against Halladay. Ian Desmond and Rick Ankiel homered. Steve Lombardozzi had a pair of hits. And a Nationals lineup that lost No. 3 hitter Ryan Zimmerman to lingering shoulder soreness about an hour before first pitch scored five runs off the veteran right-hander and beat him for the first time since the franchise relocated to the District.
In the process, they also beat the Phillies for the ninth time in their last 10 meetings, won their sixth straight at Citizens Bank Park and catapulted themselves back into first place in the NL East at 26-17.
For five years, the Nationals have been looking up in the division standings and seen Philadelphia sitting on top. These days, it's the Phillies looking all the way up at a Washington club that now looks and plays like the bullies in this rivalry.
"I think you can just see it in the standings and throughout this clubhouse," said Tyler Clippard, who earned his second career save with a 1-2-3 ninth inning. "Everything that we've portrayed as a club this year is different than we have in the past. We kind of set that tone at the end of last year and kept it rolling this year, and it feels good. Getting that final out and hearing crickets out there, it's a good feeling."
Actually, there were boos raining down upon the last-place Phillies (21-23) at the end of this one, just as there were boos raining down upon Harper when he laced that triple to ignite the surprising onslaught of Halladay.
Few would have faulted the rookie had he stepped to the plate with at least some feelings of trepidation. Harper, though, "doesn't look fazed at anybody," manager Davey Johnson said.
He certainly didn't look overwhelmed by the matchup in the top of the first, when he sent a sharp grounder through the right side hole for a solid single. And he most definitely wasn't overmatched two innings later when he drilled that triple to right-center, scoring Jordan Zimmermann and Lombardozzi to put the Nationals up 2-1.
"That's a guy that you've been watching for your whole life," said Harper, who was 5 when Halladay made his big-league debut in 1998. "He's an All-Star, he's a Cy Young and it's unbelievable going out there facing Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels and everybody in the NL East."
Harper's teammates joined in the hit parade. Desmond crushed a 2-0 pitch into the left-field bleachers later in the third inning for his team-leading eighth homer of the season. Ankiel then belted the first pitch of the fourth inning over the center-field fence to make it 5-1.
"You really go up there just hoping to get one," Desmond said. "You just want to get one knock, and the best works out for the other ones. But he's such a good pitcher that you can't go up there looking for too much."
Handed a rare, comfortable lead, Zimmermann fought his way through six tough innings, holding the Phillies to one run despite a pitch count that nearly reached triple digits in the fifth.
Tom Gorzelanny did give one run back in the eighth on Erik Kratz's first career homer. But Clippard, the first member of the Nationals' new committee of closers to get the call in a save situation, retired the side in the ninth and sent what was remaining of a crowd of 45,569 to the exits alternately booing and muttering to themselves about the reversal of power structure in the NL East.
The Nationals quietly celebrated and looked ahead to Wednesday's series finale, with an opportunity to sweep the Phillies and make yet another statement about their progress as a franchise.
"I think everybody always gets up for the king of the mountain," Johnson said. "And the Phillies, as far as I'm concerned, are still the king of the mountain. Nobody's really knocked them off that mountain. ... My guys know when we come in here, if we want to play with the best, we've got to beat these guys. And we've been doing a pretty good job."