PHILADELPHIA — For the last three games, the Washington Nationals have played short. With shortstop Ian Desmond dealing with a mild hamstring strain and outfielder Michael Morse waiting for the swelling in his badly bruised right hand to go down, manager Davey Johnson has been operating with 23 players instead of 25.
So it was on Sunday afternoon when Johnson needed to end Jordan Zimmermann’s day after five innings, pinch hitting with Roger Bernadina, and he summoned Tom Gorzelanny from the bullpen for the bottom of the sixth. He looked at his bench and saw essentially two healthy players, and one of them was his backup catcher.
He knew he had to double switch.
Bryce Harper, who’d been the second-to-last batter to hit in the top of the frame, was the choice, subbing Bernadina for him in center field and putting the pitcher into the No. 2 spot in the lineup where his spot wouldn’t appear for another seven batters.
Johnson knew Harper wouldn’t be pleased.
“I thought he had three pretty good at-bats against (left-hander Cliff Lee),” Johnson said. “But I’ve got two bench players. I’ve got to double switch. I told (bench coach Randy Knorr), I said ‘Tell the kid I have one player left and I’m double switching with him so he doesn’t kill himself down there.’
“(Knorr) didn’t get to him right away. He was destroying helmets in the runway. So I said ‘Randy, will you get to him? Please get to him.’ But I really had no choice. I didn’t care if it was Babe Ruth. I had one player left and I have to have as many batters to stay in the game as possible.”
The move was a relatively minor one in the grand scheme of a game that had already begun to get away from the Nationals and was quickly put out of reach when Gorzelanny hung a slider to Laynce Nix that was promptly deposited into the left field seats for the Phillies’ fourth run.
But it may also have been just the first opportunity for Johnson to get some other bats in the lineup while he opts to sit Harper.
Johnson has discussed the 19-year-old’s second-half slump, in which he’s hitting .196 with nine extra-base hits, on several occasions. And the more the Nationals’ bench players like Bernadina, Tyler Moore and (when both shortstop Ian Desmond and second baseman Danny Espinosa are healthy) Steve Lombardozzi, the more often he’s asked if he’s considered resting Harper more often to get those players in the game.
For the most part, Johnson hasn’t wavered. Harper is a starter on this team and the Nationals brought him up knowing that he’d be continuing his development at the big league level. The second-half struggle is certainly a part of that development and the benefit he’d get by not playing is one that would have to be considered minimal.
But the Nationals are also in the heat of a pennant race and, occasionally, that’s given Johnson pause when it comes to writing out his lineup, particularly against left-handed pitchers. (Though the team won’t face a lefty in their upcoming two-game series with Miami.)
On Saturday afternoon, he offered a few thoughts on Harper’s post-All-Star break issues.
“They’ve really given him a steady diet of off-speed pitches, not really attacking going after him,” Johnson said. “He gets impatient and then he’s his own worst enemy. Early on, they’re going to make adjustments to somebody that’s hitting it and they’ve made adjustments by not challenging him and going with more offspeed stuff and his impatience is to chase stuff outside of the zone.
“That’s just part of being a young hitter. You’ve got to make adjustments at this level on how they’re attacking you. It’s like an open book. And sometimes they’re too stubborn to read the book that’s out there on ‘em and eventually they get it. He’s been a pretty quick study.”
One of Harper’s best attributes as such a young hitter is the fact that he’s quick to make adjustments. It was one of the most highly-touted aspects of the mental side of his game when the Nationals summoned him to the major leagues back in April. And the longer he’s been in the major leagues, it seems, the more pitchers continue to feed him anything but fastballs and try to get him to chase.
So the next question to Johnson was whether or not it’s been surprising to see him struggle to adjust quickly and get back to being the phenom that everyone expects him to be.
“I’ve seen him get a little more patient,” Johnson said. “He’s hitting around .250 and he feels like he probably should hit .400 so, instead of trying to be a good hitter and hit line drives everywhere, which he did more so when he came up here, he’s now trying to juice the ball a little bit more.
“That’s normal with his ability. But, again, what happens is you see somebody with his ability who can do the things he can do, and a lot written about how talented he is, and when you struggle a little bit and don’t make the adjustments, you try to keep living up by doing great things instead of just being a good hitter.”