SAN FRANCISCO — With the Nationals trailing by a run in the eighth inning Tuesday night against the Giants, Howie Kendrick laced a one-out double. It was the rally kindling the Nationals needed. It also indirectly extinguished one.
By doubling, Kendrick left first base open with Bryce Harper on deck and the Giants didn’t hesitate. They intentionally walked Harper to shift the pressure to the next batter, Ryan Zimmerman. The Nationals’ cleanup hitter cracked the first pitch he saw from Sam Dyson. The problem was it was a groundball right at the shortstop and the beginning of a 6-4-3 inning-ending double play. The Nationals would go on to lose, 4-3, for their fourth straight defeat.
The sequence isn’t particularly noteworthy in a long season. Zimmerman got a fastball over the plate, attacked, and hit it hard. But it underlined two problems plaguing the Nationals’ offense: their inability to capitalize with runners in scoring position and to protect Harper in the lineup. Both cannot be disconnected from the reality that Washington is without Daniel Murphy, Adam Eaton and Anthony Rendon, three all-star-caliber players. Add them and the odds of teams pitching around Harper likely decrease while the chances of cashing in on scoring opportunities probably increase.
“I think we’ve been hitting the ball pretty hard,” Zimmerman said. “It seems like a few times every game we hit the ball hard right at someone. Obviously, that’s not everything. We need to get healthy, too. We’re playing pretty beat up right now. Missing some guys, and we’ve been missing them for some time.”
But being shorthanded is the reality Washington must deal with, at least temporarily. While they still have Harper healthy, it was fitting that Barry Bonds was hanging out behind the cage at AT&T Park as the Giants took batting practice Tuesday. Only he knows how it is to walk at the rate Harper has this season. Harper is on pace to accumulate the most walks in a season since Bonds in 2004, when he drew 232. Harper has a league-leading 30 through 24 games and his walk rate leads baseball by a significant margin.
In addition, he entered Tuesday with a hard-hit rate just shy of his career-best mark. And yet his BABIP entering Tuesday was .208, which would be a career-worst by a considerable amount. Unusual bad luck mixed with shifting and being pitched around have led to the discrepancy. Regardless, Harper is getting on base at a high clip — his on-base percentage after Tuesday’s game was .454 — and the Nationals aren’t capitalizing. Zimmerman has, as he did Tuesday, has mostly fourth behind Harper. He recently found his stroke after a slow start but is still batting just .188 with a .636 OPS.
“I’ll say it over and over again: Zim’s had some good at-bats,” Martinez said. “He’s hit the ball hard. Now, that groundball he hit to short, was hit hard. He can’t guide it. He can’t tell the ball where it’s going to go. All he’s got to do is hit the ball hard.”