Yet again, Bryce Harper was a magnet for Braves pitching. Regardless of motive, Harper was hit twice in Friday’s 3-2 loss and had to jump away from an inside pitch in his final at-bat. He brushed off the first hit-by-pitch but didn’t look too pleased with the second one. It was the second time in the past three meetings between the two teams that Harper has been hit. Entering Friday, Harper had been hit only twice this season and four times in his 221-game career.
Aside from dissecting the circumstances of the hit-by-pitches, the Nationals now are in a position where one of their best players has been hit repeatedly by the same opponent. What will happen next? After the game, three veterans — Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond — huddled around and chatted quietly.
“You know, that’s one of those things we take care of in-house,” Werth said. “That’s just part of the game. I’m not going to speak publicly about it.” Harper declined to comment after the game.
In a short amount of time, Harper, the Braves and their fans have developed a strange relationship. As he stepped into the batter’s box with each at-bat at Turner Field, many of the 35,663 in attendance on Friday night booed, the same way he was treated last season in Atlanta and has been this season.
Two weeks ago, however, Harper added more fuel to the fire. He hit a towering home run off Julio Teheran on Aug. 6 and trotted slower than normal around the bases, and on the first pitch of the following at-bat he was hit in the side by Teheran. Benches cleared and Harper yelled and pointed at Teheran, but no fighting occurred. Teheran denied hitting Harper on purpose, but the Nationals still believe it was intentional.
Harper again, unintentional or not, was the target of Braves pitchers. In the fourth inning, rookie left-handed starter Alex Wood yanked a first-pitch curveball and hit Harper square on his back square in between his shoulder blades. Harper walked to first base quietly and even shared smiles with Freddie Freeman at first base. Two at-bats later, Harper’s reaction was less subdued but he held it together.
Asked if he thought it both instances were deliberate, Manager Davey Johnson shook his head: “I hope not because it’s ridiculous in a close ballgame. And they’ve got a lot more to lose than we do at this point. So it would be a ridiculous thing to be doing.”
With the first pitch of his at-bat in the eighth inning, left-handed specialist Luis Avilan hit Harper with a 91-mile per hour fastball on the back of his left arm, near his shoulder. Harper dropped his bat and hunched over near the batter’s box. With Harper on first and Ryan Zimmerman already at second following a double and leading 2-1, Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez hooked Avilan.
Perhaps the most troubling matter was the fact the crowd cheered after Harper was hit and gave Avilan a standing ovation as he walked off the field. As he stood at first base, Freeman again tried to chat up Harper, whose face was expressionless. The Nationals dugout seemed none too pleased. Home plate umpire Marty Foster issued warnings to both teams.
“After he got hit the second time, (Foster) should’ve thrown him out of the ballgame,” Johnson said of Avilan. “But it’s their choice.”
Johnson, however, didn’t necessarily believe the pitches were intentional, but he was still puzzled by the situation. Left-handed reliever Scott Downs even fired a 2-1 fastball too far inside that forced Harper to jump back in the 10th inning.
“One time (Harper) got hit with a breaking ball, so that’s obviously not an intent to throw,” Johnson said. “And in that situation, they had their best left-hander out there. For him to hit in the neck, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
No Nationals pitcher retaliated on Friday, nor attempted to. But rookie left-hander Ian Krol, who coughed up the walkoff home run to Justin Upton in the bottom of the 10th inning had this to say about the situation.
“They did that to us the last time,” he said. “We like to play civilized. We don’t like to cheap shot anybody. We go out there and work out tails off. Hopefully the outcome of the game goes our way.”
Rookie starter Taylor Jordan said he was too inexperienced to retaliate. “I haven’t really been up here long enough to even strike out like that, so, no,” he said.
Saturday, however, with Stephen Strasburg starting and Mike Minor pitching for the Braves, could be interesting.