The question lingered in both clubhouses before Saturday’s game: is any retaliation expected from the Nationals aimed at the Braves’ for their repeated plunkings of Bryce Harper? Over a week ago, Harper was hit with a first-pitch fastball by Braves right-handed starter Julio Teheran after he launched a towering home run in the previous at-bat. In the second meeting between the teams after that incident, Harper was hit twice by Braves pitchers on Friday night. One was an errant first-pitch curveball from left-handed starter Alex Wood in the fourth inning, an apparently unintentional miss.
But in the eighth inning, with Ryan Zimmerman at second base with two outs, left-handed reliever Luis Avilan fired a 91-mile per hour fastball that nailed Harper in the back arm. One Nationals player believes this hit was intentional. The bruise and discomfort, although considered a minor injury, was enough to keep Harper out of Saturday’s lineup. Harper was originally in the lineup, leading off and starting in center against left-handed starter Mike Minor, but Manager Davey Johnson said Harper told him he couldn’t get his left arm loose while he swinging in the indoor batting cages.
In two of the past three meetings between the two rivals, Harper has been hit three times. And now, one of those pitches would cost the 20-year-old outfielder a game.
“I’m not happy with it,” Johnson said. “I know everybody in that room is not happy with it,” he added, referring to the Nationals clubhouse. “You turn the page. We’ve got a game to play tonight and I’m going to worry about beating them.”
But, of course, baseball, its code of conduct and this situation aren’t that simple. Several of the Nationals veteran players huddled after Friday’s game. Harper declined to talk after the game and wasn’t around the clubhouse much before Saturday’s game. Right fielder Jayson Werth said on Friday that the matter would be handled “in house.” First baseman Adam LaRoche declined to comment before Saturday’s game. Others remained mum. Stephen Strasburg starts for the Nationals. Was something in the works?
“I never order a pitcher to go after anybody,” Johnson said. “But we have a way of protecting our own.” But, of course, that doesn’t mean Johnson has never stopped a beaning from happening.
One Nationals player said there should be retaliation for Harper’s hits, even volunteering himself. “I don’t think it should happen here,” he said. “We should do it at home.”
As if Friday’s incidents weren’t enough, the Nationals and starter Gio Gonzalez are scheduled to face Teheran for the first time since the Aug. 6 game on Sunday. Asked about if Teheran merited a plunking, a different Nationals player said: “He deserves it.” Nationals players still believe Teheran intentionally targeted Harper in the at-bat following the home run, despite his denials.
The day after Harper was hit, he told Comcast SportsNet in a weekly appearance that he wasn’t pleased and “if we’re ahead a couple of games, I’d probably try putting him six feet under.” That may not have sat well with Braves players.
Johnson wasn’t pleased that the umpires didn’t toss Avilan, the second pitcher to hit Harper on Friday and issued warnings instead. Johnson said he doesn’t expect any warnings to be issued by the umpires in anticipation before Saturday’s game. He was, more than anything, puzzled by the circumstances of Harper’s plunkings.
“I can’t imagine, I can’t focus why he got hit at home,” he said. “When you have a big lead, that’s not something you want to instigate. Certainly in a close ball game, he got hit with a curveball. I don’t think anything about that. But 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.”
Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez said he didn’t expect any retaliation on Saturday, nor any pre-game warnings. Umpires could, however, still eject a pitcher without warnings if they deem a pitch dangerous. Gonzalez insisted, in particular, that Avilan was trying to get Harper out and missed on a fastball.
“It’s unfortunate,” Gonzalez said. “Nobody likes to get hit. I don’t like my players to get hit. And sometimes it is just an accident. It really is. To sit here and say we’re picking out Bryce Harper … (shoot), I like the way he plays the game. And I’ve always been one of his biggest fans, as far as people asking me questions about him. He runs until somebody tags him. That type of mentality. It’s refreshing to see a young player play the game that way.”
On the field, adding to the frustration, the Braves have smacked the Nationals around this season, leading the NL East by 15 1/2 games and beating them 11 out of 14 meetings. The Braves haven’t just defeated the Nationals, they have stomped them. Atlanta has outscored Washington 54-28 and Justin Upton alone has hit two game-winning home runs against them.
Braves fans have taken particular interest in Harper, booing him with every at-bat beginning with his rookie season. They applauded Harper’s second hit-by-pitch on Friday and gave Avilan a standing ovation as he walked off the field.
“That’s out of my control,” Gonzalez said. “Our fans are passionate and they know the game as well as any fans around the league. Hell, they were passionate about the infield fly rule. You can’t blame them. Again, I think the world of Bryce. I hope he plays 20 years of how he is playing as an 18-year-old, that kind of energy and enthusiasm.”