SAN FRANCISCO — When it was all over, and the Washington Nationals had retreated safely to the confines of the cramped visitors’ clubhouse at AT&T Park with a win, many of the players stood huddled around a table in the middle of the clubhouse, some showered, dressed and ready to go, others still in various states of postgame decompression, all focused on the same thing.
On that table sat video screens, the ones hitters often stare at after games, examining what went wrong. What exactly was on those screens was not visible between the bodies, but one could make an educated guess. An hour or so earlier, the Nationals had taken on the Giants in what is a rare brawl for the boys from the District, who rarely initiate and often do not retaliate, but will do so now and then.
“We’re not here to brawl. We’re here to win the game,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “But we’re not here to take any stuff either. Like I said, most teams I’ve had we don’t start anything, but we don’t take nothing.”
The Nationals have little history with brawls. Their last came on the last weekend of last season and was rather noncommittal, caused by A.J. Cole’s retaliation for an early wrongdoing against the Pirates, one that earned him a suspension and saw the benches clear in halfhearted fashion. But Monday’s was different, a brawl between two men, one of whom held a grudge, the other of whom is not afraid of a tussle. It was a brawl between two teams surprised that it happened at all, and at least one team in consensus about the motivations behind it.
“That clearly wasn’t going inside. That’s throwing at a spot where you can’t get out of the way,” Baker said. “If anybody should get suspended, I think it should be their pitcher … not [Harper].”
Bryce Harper charges the mound after being hit by Hunter Strickland pic.twitter.com/vXB3TqOsCR
— Barno (@DCBarno) May 29, 2017
Harper will almost certainly get suspended. He charged the mound, tried to throw his helmet at Strickland and did not deny his intent later.
“I was just trying to go after him, with the helmet or just myself,” Harper said. “I was just trying to do what I needed to do to keep it going I guess. I don’t know. In that situation, you see red. You just try to do the best you can and get out of there and not get crushed by one of their teammates coming in.”
The Nationals, by and large, did not charge in looking for a fight. Daniel Murphy said his only objective was to get Harper out unscathed.
“I think I was screaming,” Murphy admitted later.
The Giants were slow to react to the incident. Catcher Buster Posey stood still, as if to say “you’re on your own.” Most Nationals said they didn’t expect the explosion at all. Ryan Zimmerman, who was on deck at the time, said he reached down for his bat, assuming Harper would just go to first.
Jayson Werth was one of the first players to get to Harper in the middle of the fray. After the game, he would not say he expected something like this to happen — just that some people hold history “in a higher regard than others.” But he did note that his early arrival probably wasn’t a coincidence.
“I think I ended up being the first one on the scene,” Werth said. “So I may or may not have been ready for the whole thing.”
But if Werth anticipated the whole thing, he was one of the few. Harper said it didn’t cross his mind until he stepped in the box. Baker said he wasn’t aware of their history until after the fact. Neither was catcher Matt Wieters, who was obviously not with the team in 2014, but did make an interesting point about 2017.
“You can’t let a guy take a free shot at you throwing 95. The bad thing is, [Harper] will probably get a couple games out of it, when he actually saved other guys from being thrown out by doing that,” Wieters said. “It’s what’s crazy about our game when somebody takes a shot at you. I’m hoping he gets way more games than Bryce does.”
“I don’t get to fight the pitcher when he strikes me out twice,” Zimmerman said. “It’s part of the game, but I don’t know what it is.”
Harper was composed in the aftermath, politely incredulous even.
“I don’t want to go on a baseball field and try to fight somebody. Especially when it’s somebody that it’s in the past. It’s so in the past that it’s not even relevant anymore,” Harper said. “They won the World Series that year. I don’t even think he should be thinking about what happened in the first round. He should be thinking about wearing that ring home every single night. I don’t know why he did it or what he did it for, but I guess it happens.”
Harper said he respected Strickland for hitting him in the hip, not somewhere more dangerous where he might not emerge without injury. But any talk of respect ended there, transforming instead into talk of relevance. Harper saw none of it in Strickland’s decision Monday.
“That’s where a spot where it’s just not relevant,” Harper said. “That was three years ago, a thousand days I guess you could say. I don’t know why he’s still thinking about it.”
Because Strickland hit Harper, everyone is thinking about it — including Nationals starter Tanner Roark, who did not take kindly to the whole thing.
“Three years later, time to turn the page,” Roark said. “Guess that’s the only way he could get him out, by hitting him. Well, couldn’t get him out, so the only way he could do it.”
“I think it’s way too late for that,” Roark said. “Maybe the next year, but shouldn’t have thrown those pitches that get hit out. That’s the bottom line.”