Bryce Harper kept his cool and avoided being ejected despite feuding with home plate umpire Laz Diaz over his strike zone during the Nationals’ loss in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

ATLANTA — Early in Friday’s 10-5 loss to the Braves, Bryce Harper did not like a pitch veteran home plate umpire Laz Diaz called a strike. He indicated as much with his body language at home plate, but continued the at-bat without event. As he stood in center field shortly after, Harper saw a similar pitch called a ball, and threw his arms to the sky. Diaz noticed, didn’t like it, and told the Nationals dugout as much.

When Harper ran off the field between innings, Diaz walked up the third base line toward him, and started hollering at him. Harper kept his head down and went into the dugout, ignoring Diaz’s screams. Umpires do not generally chase down players like that, and Manager Dave Martinez felt the whole thing was out of line. But the trouble did not stop there.

In Harper’s next at-bat, which came with the tying runs in scoring position in the top of the seventh, Diaz called a curveball a strike that Harper felt was outside. Replays showed Harper was right. The pitch was as egregious a missed call as one can find in the big leagues, well outside the zone (see pitch No. 4 in the picture below).

Laz Diaz called pitch No. 4 a strike, which set Bryce Harper and his manager off.

Harper, already somewhat riled up by his earlier exchanges with Diaz, expressed his displeasure. According to Harper and Martinez, Diaz continued to talk back to Harper even after he began to get back in the batter’s box, at which point Martinez hurried out to defend his player.

“We were in a pivotal moment of the game and he’s saying things to Harp and I thought that was uncalled for,” Martinez said. “I’ve known him for a long time. I ran out there thinking I was going to get thrown out, but I said you know, what I’m not — this is a big moment of the game. But I told Laz, back off let him hit.”

Ultimately, Harper grounded out to shortstop and drove home a run, the last one the Nationals would score Friday night. Diaz maintained a long leash, letting Harper share his thoughts without tossing him from the game. Harper refused to say exactly what Diaz said to him, though he indicated that Braves’ catcher Tyler Flowers had heard it all.

“If I heard him right, then Flowers knows what he said,” Harper said. “I’m not gonna go into it because there’s no reason to. But if that’s going to be his strike zone then I have to be prepared to battle my butt off and get that strike zone next time.”

Martinez said Diaz calmed down after that confrontation, though while both Harper and Martinez were glad to avoid being ejected, both were animated about the incident after the game.

“Umpires are supposed to be non-confrontational — they’re supposed to uphold the peace on the baseball field,” Martinez said. “For me, I think MLB needs to take a look at that.”

Harper said he has been trying to avoid getting tossed out of games this season, that he has made it a priority, an interesting change in attitude for the fiery superstar. In the past, Harper has been unapologetic about ejections, even when they came in big moments in games when the team could sorely use his services. Now, he said, he is trying to walk right to the edge of ejection-worthy behavior, then quiet down in time to stay in the game.

“There’s no reason to [get ejected],” Harper said. “At the end of the day, if I’m 0 for 4 or 4 for 4, it’s just part of the game. I’d rather be 0 for 4 or 4 for 4 and not get thrown out of the game where I’m only 0 for 2 and we lose the game in the eighth or the ninth. So gotta stay in the ballgame of course and help this team win on any given night.”

Martinez, who has known Diaz since his minor league days, said he decided against a toss-worthy tirade, too. But while he tried to avoid saying much about the whole thing afterward, he could not help it.

“He called a pitch on him that was pretty ridiculous,” Martinez said. “So hopefully MLB will take a look at it and decide what to do.”

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