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Healthy Phillies take aim at Nats: Title 'is very hard to defend'

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Last time the Phillies were here, it was the spring of 2007.

Here, as in not the defending NL East champions during camp.

Which makes them something of an expert on living with targets on their backs. Which, of course, qualifies them to offer bits of advice to a Nationals club that is young, loaded and ready to win again.

That NL East title Davey Johnson's club won in 2012?

“It's very hard to defend,” Phillies starter Cole Hamels says. “Ultimately, the Nationals are going to learn about that. They've finally been able to win. Obviously, they have a long way to go for what they want to accomplish.

“They're in a different situation than what they've been in in recent years. And we're in a different situation, too.”

The Nats won the division with baseball's best record at 98-64. The Braves finished second, four games back at 94-68. The Phillies lagged 17 games back at 81-81.

The Phillies and Nationals have developed into baseball's best rivalry for a handful of reasons. Geography. The fact that the Nats took the Phils' NL East title last summer.

Hamels drilling then-rookie Bryce Harper with a pitch last May. Stephen Strasburg losing control of a pitch and hitting Chase Utley in the ankle earlier this month … and Roy Halladay retaliating by throwing behind Tyler Moore.

“The Nationals were great last year,” Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard says. “They're looking to build on that, and we're looking to rebuild.

“I think it's going to be a fun year. It's a great division to watch. Rivalries with the Nationals and the Braves … it's going to be a lot more exciting.”

Says Hamels: “The Nationals are obviously a tremendous talent, and they're built at the right time and they're going to try to make their move.

“So we have to push back as hard as we possibly can and go out and stall what they're trying to accomplish and get what we're trying to accomplish.”

The fact that these two teams face off 18 times this season makes it even better. The first of these must-see games: May 24, in DC.

This will be fun.

“Which is, I think, the best for baseball,” Hamels says. “You want to be able to play in front of a rowdy, sellout home crowd and you want to be able to play in front of a rowdy, sellout away crowd.

“That's what's fun. And we're so close in proximity that you have some great fans. The teams are so good and obviously what we were able to accomplish for five years and what they're trying to accomplish, that's the best thing for baseball.

“This is why we want to play the game. You want to be the best, and in order to be the best you have to beat the best.”

Batter up.

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