HOUSTON — Adam LaRoche had never seen Bryce Harper react the way he did to Angel Hernandez in the fourth inning Wednesday night.
He’d seen the ultra-fiery Harper throw his helmet and break his bat. He was there for the incident in Cincinnati in which Harper took a bat to the dugout wall and wound up with stitches over his left eye. But until Wednesday, LaRoche hadn’t seen Harper jaw at an umpire.
Harper struck out looking in the fourth inning on a pitch that appeared to be well outside the zone and low, a view confirmed by the Brooks Baseball plot. He shouted at Hernandez, and got in his face before first base coach Trent Jewett finally escorted Harper back to the Nationals’ dugout.
When Harper batted in the sixth with the bases loaded — and was so certain he walked on a 3-1 pitch from Xavier Cedeno that he was halfway to first base when he acknowledged that strike two had been called on him — he watched one more pitch just outside the strike zone, but said to be in it, go by and frustratingly took his second called strikeout to end the inning.
So finally LaRoche asked Hernandez what had transpired between them.
“I talked to Angel about it right after that at-bat,” LaRoche said. “I said ‘What’s going on? From where I’m at those balls are down.’ He assured me that they were good pitches. Said he would never do that to Bryce. He loves him. He loves the way he plays and that there’s no kind of initiation there. He called it the way he would call it to anybody.”
Hernandez told a pool reporter that he was never close to throwing Harper out of the game, though he gave him plenty of rope to state his case after the fourth inning strikeout, and found nothing wrong with letting the Nationals’ rookie have his say. Hernandez disregarded the idea that Harper’s age or status came into play and LaRoche, too, said he’d hope that would never be a factor.
“I would hope they’re more professional than that,” he said, though admitting it’s tough to tell from the dugout how Harper’s at-bats are called.
“There were some questionable pitches,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “But he’s pressing a little bit.”
Harper is in a wicked slump since the All-Star break and was 0-for-3 Wednesday to drop his second-half average to .176 with four extra-base hits, five RBI and 14 walks.
To this point, Johnson has insisted that he does not see Harper needing a break physically, but he thought he took his emotions from the plate into the field with him on Wednesday. And the result, Johnson felt, was a wild overthrow that Gio Gonzalez had to dive to save from going into the Nationals’ dugout and allow the tying run to score in the ninth inning.
Johnson said he will likely give Harper a day off on Thursday.
“That’s just a rookie mistake,” Johnson said of Harper’s throw. “I think maybe he took his at-bat with him into the outfield. You can’t allow the winning run to go to second. That’s 101 baseball. He knows it. He was just being a little overly aggressive. It didn’t hurt nothing, but that’s not a mistake you want to be making when you’re in a pennant race.
“I thought that overthrow was a little frustration. We put him in some situations that he likes to be in, and he didn’t have good ABs, so we’ll let him step back a little bit.”
At the suggestion of Jayson Werth, Harper politely declined comment to reporters after the game, saying only “No, sorry guys.”
But his teammates empathized with his plight.
“I’ve been there,” LaRoche said. “I haven’t gone back to look at (the pitches) but I’ve been in that position. I’ve talked to Bryce a lot about it. I said, ‘You’ve got to keep your mouth shut, but at some point, if it gets really bad you’ve got to stand up for yourself and not sit there and take it.’ Especially as competitive as he is.
“He’s done it right for the most part. He’s held his tongue and, eventually, you lose it and he’s going to let somebody know about it. Again, I haven’t gone back and seen ‘em so I don’t know if they were close or how bad they were. Angel told me they were good pitches.”