The enormity of what Bryce Harper has done in the first nine games of the Washington Nationals’ season has not gone unnoticed. Not within his own clubhouse, and certainly not amongst the opposition.
The tour de force the Nationals’ 20-year-old left fielder has put on in the first three series can be borne out in his stat line. He’s put together multi-hit games seven times and gone hitless only once. He’s hit four home runs, the third-most in the National League. He’s barreling up fastballs, offspeed pitches and breaking pitches.
“Harp, he’s swinging pretty good,” said manager Davey Johnson, understating the facts.
But perhaps none of those numbers accurately reflects just how much of an impression Harper has made early this season than what Chicago White Sox manager Robin Ventura did in the fourth inning of the Nationals’ 7-4 victory Thursday night.
Ventura faced a dilemma. Harper walked to the plate with runners on the corners and White Sox right-hander Dylan Axelrod struggling. His first pitch bounced wildly, scoring Nationals starter Dan Haren from third to give the Nationals a 4-3 lead.
Ventura signaled for Axelrod to put Harper on. It was the first intentional walk of Harper’s major league career, though it happened seven times in the minors and extremely often in high school and college.
Only problem, aside from putting arguably the Nationals’ speediest player on base, was he walked him to bring up Ryan Zimmerman. The cleanup hitter.
“Harper is hot,” Ventura said. “The swings he was having earlier off of (Axelrod), you are just rolling the dice either way.”
“Well, that’s their decision,” Johnson said, struggling to keep the smile from his face. “I’m glad I don’t have to make those decisions.”
Zimmerman doubled to deep right field. The Nationals expanded their lead as Jayson Werth and Harper scored. They didn’t lead by more than two runs until the eighth, when Harper widened it to three with an RBI-single.
But the game never again felt close.
“(Ventura’s) pretty big on controlling match-ups late in the ballgame,” Johnson said. “I kind of lean toward giving a guy an opportunity to pitch to him, and not give in, more than I do putting him on. But I firmly believe in match-ups, so it doesn’t faze me at all.”
That Harper was intentionally walked was not, on it’s own, a ridiculous notion. Harper’s aforementioned stat line, including a .417 batting average, tells as much of the story as is needed to understand that decision. As a left-hander, facing a tiring right-hander, the match-up would seemingly sway even more in his favor.
“If I’m the manager I’d rather pitch a righty against a righty instead of a lefty,” Zimmerman said. “But obviously Bryce, you don’t want to pitch to Bryce right now.
“It’s harder, supposedly, for righties to hit off righties. I think it was just more of a match-up thing.”
As far as could be ascertained from the box scores, since 2009 the batter in front of Zimmerman has been intentionally walked only one other time. That one was perhaps even stranger, with Roger Bernadina put on base in front of Zimmerman in a September 2011 game against the New York Mets. Zimmerman hit a walk-off home run then.
He chuckled when told it’d happened only once, and didn’t remember the result.
“It’s probably never (happened),” Johnson joked. “He answered.”
Axelrod needed 103 pitches to get through 3 2/3 innings of work on Thursday night. It seemed that getting a righty-righty matchup would matter little for a pitcher who allowed seven hits in that brief span and walked four — one, of course, intentionally.
“They were showing a lot of respect for Bryce, ten days into the season getting an intentional walk,” Haren said. “But our lineup is really good. There are no soft spots.”
“First base open, (I’m) hitting righties pretty good, and in a good spot to walk,” Harper said, essentially shrugging his shoulders as the decision. “Nothing I can do.”
There was more that went into the Nationals’ victory, a sweep-clinching win that brought them to 6-0 inside Nationals Park this year, and 7-2 on the season heading into this weekend’s showdown with the Atlanta Braves.
Haren took steps to improve from his rocky Nationals debut, allowing three runs off 10 hits in five innings. He doubled, showing off his admitted lack of prowess on the basepaths, and came away somewhat pleased, but feeling there was more work to be done.
Ryan Mattheus pitches two scoreless innings to bridge the gap that Haren left, giving way to Tyler Clippard in the eighth and Rafael Soriano in the ninth for his fifth save of the season.
The top six batters in the Nationals’ lineup accounted for nine of their 10 hits, and they reached Axelrod for three runs before the fateful fourth.
But the game turned on the four pitches the White Sox righty threw the Nationals’ young phenom. And what the now-seasoned veteran hitting behind him did after that.
“You just take your chance,” Ventura said. “(Zimmerman) got him.”