ATLANTA — Around 2:30 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson ran into Bryce Harper in the visitors’ clubhouse at Turner Field. With a tough left-hander in Mike Minor pitching for the Braves on Saturday night, Johnson wanted to check on Harper. He planned to have a mostly right-handed lineup, but he still wanted Harper to be a part of it.
“You need a day off?” Johnson asked Harper. “All those balls that have been hitting your body (taking their toll)?”
Harper told Johnson that he was fine and joked that he could play wherever he needed — center field, catcher, pitcher, whatever.
But then Harper went down to the batting cage and tried to take a few hacks. His left triceps, which was hit as he tried to turn away from Luis Avilan’s 91-mph fastball in the eighth inning on Friday night, was bothering him.
Harper and head trainer Lee Kuntz told Johnson that he couldn’t get his arm loose in the cage, so Johnson scratched him.
And that, perhaps more than the simple fact that Harper has now been hit by the Braves’ pitchers three times in the last four games between the teams without retaliation from the Nationals, may have crystallized the issue for the Nationals.
Regardless of the intent of the Braves’ pitchers behind the pitches that have hit Harper, he’s been hit multiple times — and now one of those hit-by-pitches is keeping him out of a game.
“I’m not happy with it,” Johnson said. “I know everybody in that room (the clubhouse) is not happy with it. You turn the page. We’ve got a game to play tonight and I’m going to worry about beating them tonight.”
The issue of whether or not the Nationals will retaliate is one that has been percolating for some time now. To this point, whether it was due to specific game situations or warnings being issued to both dugouts — which come with automatic ejections and suspensions for pitchers and managers if there is a subsequent batter hit, there have been no Braves hit since Harper’s initial plunking.
The Braves insist the pitches have not been deliberate, that Harper has simply been the victim of some unfortunate control problems. And the Nationals have had trouble making sense of it, too.
“I can’t fathom why he got hit at home (last week). When you have a big lead, that’s not something you want to instigate,” Johnson said. “(Then) certainly in a close ball game, he got hit with a curveball. I don’t think anything about that. And then they got their best left-handed reliever in there and our best hitter coming up. That’s not a situation where you want to hit a guy. For what?
“So it’s total ignorance or being wild. I’m not sure which it is at this point.”
Harper declined comment through a Nationals spokesman after Friday night’s game, but he was obviously frustrated by being hit and frustrated last week by the fact that there was no retaliation.
In a weekly interview with CSNWashington that took place a day after the initial incident, on Aug.7, Harper said “I think if I’m the pitcher on my team, I think I’m gonna drill somebody… It’s something that’s part of the game, you know, yesterday, and it’s also something that I think could light a fire for us. But, like I said, we’re 14.5 games back and we don’t need anybody getting ejected or doing anything like that. We’ve got a great team and we’ve got to push to the end.”
The Nationals, who have lost 11 of 14 games to the Braves this season and will open Saturday’s contest 15.5 games behind them in the National League East, will have Stephen Strasburg on the mound.
“I never order a pitcher to go after anybody,” Johnson said Saturday. “But we have a way of protecting our own.”
“I’m a little frustrated in that we had a bunch of close ball games and we’re trying to catch them and after it happens we keep getting another warning,” Johnson added. “It kind of puts a damper on things.”
Did he expect a pre-game warning on Saturday?
“I do not,” Johnson said.
Gonzalez said that might not matter.
“They can technically throw somebody out before even giving warnings,” he said. “The warning is kind of like ‘Ok boys, let’s take it easy on the sand box here, the playground.’ But if they feel like that pitch — it could be the first pitch of the ballgame — if they feel it was intentional they don’t have to give any warning whatsoever.
“You know what, it’s a big boy’s game and it is what it is… I can honestly tell you that (it’s) unfortunate. Nobody likes to get hit. I don’t like my players to get hit. And sometimes it’s just an accident, it really is. To sit here and say ‘We’re picking on Bryce Harper,’ (expletive) I like the way he plays the game. and I’ve always been one of his biggest fans.”