PHILADELPHIA -- The Nationals showed they could handle right-hander Roy Halladay on Tuesday night, as they defeated the Phillies, 5-2, at Citizens Bank Park.
Washington has now won three consecutive games and improved its record to 26-17. The Nationals have beaten the Phillies six straight times at Citizens Bank Park, marking the first time in franchise history the Nationals/Expos have won that many games in a row in Philly. They also beat Halladay for the first time since 2002, when they were the Expos.
But manager Davey Johnson and shortstop Ian Desmond said the Phillies are still the team to beat. After all, Philadelphia has won five straight National League East titles.
"I think everyone gets up for the king of the mountain," Johnson said. "The Phillies, as far as I'm concerned, are the king of the mountain. Nobody has really knocked them off that mountain. They are banged up, and so are we. We are worse than they are, but my guys know that when we come in here, we want to play with the best. We have to beat these guys, and I think they've done a pretty good job."
Desmond said some perspective was in order because the Phillies fought injuries last year, as well, and finished 20 games higher than the Nationals in the standings.
"It's early in the season," he said. "It's May. They are a veteran ballclub with good players. We'll see what happens toward the end of the year. These wins right here don't mean anything. No pennants have ever been won in May."
The Nationals were down, 1-0, on Tuesday when they scored four runs in the third inning against Halladay, a two-time Cy Young Award winner. Bryce Harper gave Washington a 2-1 lead when he tripled to right-center field, scoring Jordan Zimmermann and Steve Lombardozzi.
"The kid smoked it. That was really the turning point in the game, as far as I'm concerned," Johnson said of Harper's hit. "He doesn't look fazed by anybody. He is going to get his hacks. ... Every time I've ever seen him, he is not going to get cheated. He has a pretty good idea what he is going to do. ... He is just looking for a ball he can drive. He got one right there."
After watching Halladay for the last three years on TV and on video, Harper's game plan was to look for the curveball on the first-pitch in that third inning. Harper thought right and hit the ball in the gap.
"I got it, luckily, put a good swing on it and did some things," Harper said. "I have been watching Halladay for three years, and he throws a first pitch curveball to so many people and just lets it get over the plate. I was just trying to get something up in that situation, get something going. We had two guys on, and you had to get them in. He is a great pitcher."
After Chad Tracy, who was starting for Ryan Zimmerman at third base, popped up to third baseman Hector Luna, Adam LaRoche hit a sacrifice fly to center field, scoring Harper. Ian Desmond was the next hitter, and he powered a homer over the left-field wall. It was his eighth home run of the season, leaving him two shy of the career high he set in 2010.
The Nationals scored again in the fourth, when Rick Ankiel hit Halladay's first pitch over the center-field wall for his third homer.
Halladay realized that Harper wasn't the only one swinging early in the count.
"The one to Harper, the curveball, that one was a bad pitch that cost me," Halladay said. "They were swinging early, and you can take advantage of that if you're making good pitches. I felt like we made good pitches. The one to Harper wasn't. I thought the one to Desmond was a pretty good pitch. The one to Ankiel wasn't in a good spot. They're aggressive, they're swinging. You just have to make better pitches early in the count.
Benefiting from the run support, Zimmermann threw six innings, allowing one run on seven hits. He even helped himself with the bat, going 2-for-3 and scoring the Nationals' first run.
"[Zimmermann] pitched well, but again, he threw too many pitches. He was right at 20 pitches an inning," Johnson said. "That's not him, but our pitchers have been doing that lately. I'm not real happy with it."
"It was also a game that saw Tyler Clippard save his first game of the season. After Monday's 2-1, victory over Philadelphia, Johnson decided that Henry Rodriguez was no longer his closer, when the righty nearly suffered his fourth blown save. Johnson decided to go with a closer-by-committee approach.
On Tuesday, Clippard spoke to pitching coach Steve McCatty to tell him that he wanted a shot to close games.
According to Johnson, McCatty said, "You are fine where you are at. Just relax."
The ninth inning was set up perfectly for Clippard, who retired the side in order.
"There was a lot more adrenaline, a lot more nervousness, but it was a good feeling. I haven't had that in a while. So it was a lot of fun tonight," he said.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.