- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Ryan Zimmerman gave Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon credit.

The Nationals first baseman was asked this week about Maddon’s decision to pitch around Bryce Harper last season. The Cubs walked Harper an MLB-record 13 times, four intentional, during a four-game series in May 2016.

Harper reached base and the Cubs would get to Zimmerman, who was just 4-for-32 last year against Chicago. Nationals pitcher Tanner Roark, at the time, called it “scared baseball.”

“I think Joe’s a pretty smart manager,” Zimmerman said. “I think everyone would agree with me. I’m pretty sure he just looks at the matchups and the numbers. And last year, the matchups favored him, so he did what he was supposed to do. And I’m sure if the opportunity arises this year, he’ll look at the numbers again. And whatever matchup gives him the best chance to succeed, that’s what he’s going to do.”

Against the Nationals this year, Maddon has abandoned such a strategy — and the bats in the middle of Washington’s lineup are the reason.

It starts with Zimmerman, who is having an MVP-like season. Zimmerman entered Tuesday’s game with a .344/.645/1.029 split. Those stats are, by far, career highs and a drastic turnaround after last season. Zimmerman batted just .218 in 2016, giving Chicago and other teams a reason to pitch around Harper.

Harper is capitalizing on the Cubs‘ decision to pitch to him. He went 3-for-5 on Monday.

“Last year is last year,” Harper said. “Whatever we’re doing this year, try to keep it going. Zim’s done a great job for us. (Daniel) Murphy as well. I mean, one through eight, pick your poison. We’ve got a great lineup. We lead the league in a lot of categories, so it’s a lot of fun to go out there and be part of that lineup.”

Zimmerman still went 0-for-5 against the Cubs on Monday, but the Nationals have plenty of hitters to give teams problems.

It’s entirely possible the Nationals finish the year with four players having at least 100 RBIs or a .400 on-base percentage. Zimmerman, Murphy and Harper all have at least 50 RBIs to date and Anthony Rendon isn’t far behind with 47. All have an OBP of at least .380 and rank in the top 15 of the National League.

“Getting runs across the plate, I think it’s something we don’t put enough importance on,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. “We put a whole bunch of importance on on-base percentage, but what good is on-base percentage if you can’t drive home men?”

Baker, though, said he valued runners in scoring position more than either the 100 RBI mark or OBP. He won’t have to worry about that category, either. As a foursome, Harper, Zimmerman Murphy, and Rendon are batting .354 (99-for-279) with runners in scoring position.

Last year, the Cubs did pitch more directly to Harper once Baker swapped Murphy for Zimmerman as the fourth-hitter in the lineup. But Harper was struggling as well, so it didn’t have the same effect. After a three-game series last June, Harper was batting .249.

Harper is batting .321 this year.

“He has that protection now that he had been wanting,” Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez said. “With Zim and Murph, everybody in that lineup, even (Brian) Goodwin, gives him all that protection. You’re going to have to pitch to him because the guys behind him are doing remarkable, All-Star worthy stuff.”

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