Before the Nationals arrived in Colorado, Manager Matt Williams explained to Bryce Harper how he planned to use him. Harper had busted loose in the first series of the second half, using his new stance to rip five hits, draw two walks and smash a homer in 12 plate appearances. But for myriad reasons, Harper would be sitting in the series opener, his second time out of the lineup in six games.
“I’m totally fine with it,” Harper said. “Of course, I’m a guy that likes to play. I always try to battle my way into the lineup. But I totally understand it.”
In a series in which the Nationals will face three left-handed starters, Williams sat Harper – one of the Nationals’ hottest hitters and their most dynamic offensive player – Monday night against Franklin Morales. Danny Espinosa will start at second base, which bumped Anthony Rendon to third and Ryan Zimmerman to left field in the spacious outfield at Coors Field.
After Harper went 5 for 10 with a double and a homer against the Brewers, will the day off affect his suddenly pristine timing at the plate? Harper said it “absolutely” would not.
“I feel good where my swing is at,” Harper said. “I don’t think a day off is going to hurt that at all. Of course with how I’m feeling, I’d like to be in there. But I feel good in BP. I felt good in the cage. It’s more of a feel thing, and I feel good.”
Williams gave three reasons for why he benched Harper on Monday:
>>> Nationals starter Doug Fister induces gobs of groundballs, so Williams wanted Espinosa in the lineup to give the Nationals their best defensive infield. Espinosa has also been much better hitting from the right side, posting an .803 OPS compared to .546 from the left side.
>>> In Williams’s view, Harper has not seen left-handed pitchers well recently. Harper is actually 14 for 39 (.359) with four extra-base hits against left-handed pitchers this season. But Williams said Harper lately has been chasing pitches low and out of the strike zone from lefties.
Williams also sat Harper two days before the all-star break against Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels. Williams said he does not plan to turn Harper into a platoon player.
“It’s just a day,” Williams said. “It’s not like he’s not going to play against lefties. The fact that we’ve got three of them, it allows us to get Danny in there tonight. We’ll look at tomorrow, tomorrow.”
>>> Williams believes Harper needs to rest after he returned from left thumb surgery. “He’s going to get days off,” Williams said. Ryan Zimmerman has played all 41 games since he returned from a broken thumb. Williams drew a distinction between Harper’s ligament damage and Zimmerman’s broken bone, which tends to heal with fewer complications.
“Balls down out of the strike zone, not seeing those as well,” Williams said. “We’ve got to get him some days, too. He’s coming off a very serious injury. If we want to get Danny some time, we certainly want to give Bryce a day when he needs. And the fact that he’s been swinging at some balls down, out of the strike zone against lefties in the last couple of days, allows us to give him a day off if we can.”
Williams could have sat Denard Span, who’s hitting .247 against left-handed pitchers this season, and moved Harper to center. He also could have given Adam LaRoche, who has hit .243 off lefties, a day off and moved Zimmerman to first base.
LaRoche has played all 46 games since he came off the disabled list in late May. He has been one of the Nationals’ best hitters all season, but this month he is hitting .140.
“It’s a little bit of a mechanical thing,” Williams said. “He stands up at the plate. And if he doesn’t stay on top of that baseball with his top hand, [his bat] can dip a little bit. You start to see balls kind of lofted to left field. That’s what I see when he’s not right. I talked to him today. He feels good. Health-wise, he’s great.”
With the Nationals scheduled to face lefties Yohan Flande and Jorge de la Rosa the next two days, Williams said both Span and LaRoche could “potentially” take turns on the bench.
Either way, Harper will return Tuesday night. In his mind, he’ll still be just as locked in then as he is now.
“I’m trying to get my work in in the cage and do what I can,” Harper said. “Of course I want to be in the lineup every day. But seeing three lefties, it’s kind of hard. I feel good. I feel good where I’m at. We’ll see where I’m at tomorrow. I’ll get my work in today and hopefully pinch hit late, see if I can get a hit.”