A day after Bryce Harper was hit twice by Braves pitchers, Stephen Strasburg didn’t hold back. Facing Braves left fielder Justin Upton, the second batter of the first inning, Strasburg fired a 97-mph fastball straight at his left hip in Saturday’s game. An inning later, the game only got crazier when Strasburg, his command clearly wavering, threw two wild pitches behind Andrelton Simmons and was ejected for the first time in his career. Nationals Manager Davey Johnson was also ejected.
“We come out here every single day regardless of what our record is and where we’re at in the standings and we want to come out and beat the other team,” Strasburg said after the game. “We’re going to go out there and compete.”
After he was plunked, Upton dropped his bat and took first base without any issue, and seemed to look back at Strasburg, whose expression was blank as normal when he pitches. Home plate umpire Marvin Hudson warned both dugouts. The Turner Field crowd erupted and cheered “Freddie! Freddie!” as the next batter, Freddie Freeman, stepped in the box against Strasburg. He wouldn’t, however, comment on the Upton hit-by-pitch.
“I’m not gonna get into that,” Strasburg said.
Strasburg allowed a leadoff home run to Jason Heyward, but the Nationals led 2-1 thanks to a Wilson Ramos two-run single in the top of the frame. Strasburg’s intent with Upton seemed clear. Upton, the Braves’ best player, hit a walk-off home run on Friday night and raised eyebrows on Aug. 5 when he trotted slowly around the bases following a game-deciding home run in Washington. The following day, Harper was hit by Braves starter Julio Teheran with the first pitch in the first at-bat after he hit a towering home run off of him. Upton and Harper represent each team’s best.
“They hit Harper quite a bit,” bench coach and acting manager Randy Knorr said. “So I don’t know if somebody said something or if [Strasburg] just decided to do it on his own. If he decided to do it on his own, I’m proud of him.”
Added Johnson: “After somebody goes deep and you know he hit him in the rear-end, I don’t think it’s a big deal, you know?”
Johnson and the Nationals had been upset and frustrated with how Braves pitchers kept hitting Harper, especially on Friday. After he was hit twice in the first game of the series, Harper was out of Saturday’s lineup with a bruise on the back of his left arm, where he was hit by Luis Avilan in the eighth inning. Avilan denied hitting Harper on purpose, blaming his errant command. Harper has been hit four times this season, three times by the Braves and in a span of three games.
“They’re just throwing at us to throw at us,” said Craig Stammen, who provided three strong innings before Dan Haren notched the 15th-inning save. “[Avilan] can say he didn’t do it on purpose, but he hit him in the back arm. Which isn’t even close when the guy’s been throwing strikes all the time. So, I mean, you can say whatever it is, but the game will always police itself. And credit to their hitters, when they got hit, they walked down to first base, they took it like men and that’s kinda how it is and it should be over now.”
Johnson, however, was less definitive about an end to the ongoing saga between the teams. “It’s a good competitive spirit and it will continue,” he said. “That’s all I can say.”
After Strasburg ended the first inning with a 4-6-3 double play, he received high-fives and fist pounds from teammates and coaches in the dugout. In the top half of the following inning, the Nationals built a 4-1 lead on a two-run single by Jayson Werth.
Strasburg took the mound in the bottom half of the second and walked Jordan Schafer on four straight pitches. On the first pitch to seven-hole hitter Simmons, Strasburg fired a wild pitch low and away. Pitching coach Steve McCatty came to the mound to talk with Strasburg. The next two pitches from Strasburg went behind Simmons and to the backstop. The inning’s third wild pitch allowed Schafer to score. But Hudson had seen enough and ejected Strasburg from the game.
“I’ve never seen his command so bad,” Johnson said. “He didn’t come close to the first hitter he faced.”
Added Knorr: “I don’t think the intent was to go in and hit him at that time. I think if he was going to miss he was going to miss inside so that’s what he did.”
Strasburg said nothing and walked into the dugout. By rule, since warnings had been issued earlier in the game, Johnson was tossed as well. Tanner Roark replaced Strasburg in the inning. Strasburg’s final line was a strange one: 1 IP, 2 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 1 SO, 1 HR and only 26 pitches. Braves players and even Johnson thought Strasburg may have been hurt, but he said he was cold from sitting during a long top half of the inning and his command simply grew erratic.
“I can’t really explain it,” Strasburg said. “Just didn’t really feel good out there and couldn’t hit the spot.”
Scott Hairston would become the third National to be tossed from the game after he argued a called third strike in the eighth inning. The wacky and wild game dragged on for 15 innings after the Nationals bullpen imploded, notably another blown save by Rafael Soriano. Adam LaRoche hit the game-deciding solo homer in the 15th inning. By the game ended, Strasburg had been ejected four and a half hours earlier. Even though he didn’t publicly admit the motive for the wayward pitch to Upton, it almost didn’t matter. Within the Nationals clubhouse, Strasburg’s action were seen a certain way.
“Whether it got away from him or not, he’s got my respect,” LaRoche said. “I was impressed.”
The Braves had a feeling something was coming.
“It was whatever,” Heyward said. “For us, it was like if it happens, ‘big deal.’ If not, ‘big deal.’ We’re just playing baseball, competing and having fun. It’s a part of the game. You just hope nobody gets hurt.”