Chicago White Sox Manager Robin Ventura had enough of the Washington Nationals lineup and the restless Bryce Harper. So in the fourth inning of the series finale on a wind-whipped Thursday night, he curiously made a call he hoped would help end the misery: Put Harper on base and take his chances against cleanup hitter Ryan Zimmerman. On yet another day, the Nationals and their treacherous lineup had backed an opposing pitching staff and manager into a corner.
As if tempted by fate, Zimmerman delivered a crucial two-run double following the unusual move. The Nationals dispatched the White Sox, 7-4, and claimed their second series sweep of the young season. With their offense humming and perturbing opposing pitchers, the Nationals rolled toward their looming weekend showdown with the first-place and new-look rival Atlanta Braves.
Dan Haren redeemed himself from an unpleasant first impression and allowed three runs over five improved innings in his encore performance. Ryan Mattheus pitched two innings, bridging Haren to Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano, who notched his fifth save. After 11-hit and 13-hit performances, the offense belted out another 10 hits. But the most memorable moment was the oddity of the fourth inning when Harper was intentionally walked for the first time in his major league career and Zimmerman delivered the winning difference.
“It’s not surprising and it surprising at the same time,” Mattheus said. “The guys you’ve got behind Harper, you’d rather face them than him right now. But it came back to bite him. Those are all-star, MVP caliber players, three of them in a row behind him. That’s just the beauty of facing a strong lineup.”
The Nationals’ lineup, tweaked this winter, continued to pester starters and give managers fits by having to turn early and often to their bullpens. Led by Denard Span and Jayson Werth, the first inning was an endurance test for Dylan Axelrod. Span massaged six pitches out of Axelrod’s right arm. Then Werth battled him for 10 pitches and a single. By the end of the inning, Axelrod had fired 40 pitches. That laid the groundwork for the fourth inning.
The Nationals have chased eight of the past nine opposing starters from the game by the seventh inning. In the first game of the series, they drew out four relievers from the White Sox bullpen. By the time the Nationals chased Axelrod after only 11 outs, the White Sox were sending a reliever to the mound for the eighth time in the series.
That is when the oddest compliment of Harper’s talent occurred. Haren, who reached on a double and went to third on a single by Werth, scored on a wild pitch to Harper that Ventura argued hit Harper in the foot. Werth, who also advanced on the wild slider, stood at second with two outs. The Nationals led, 4-3. Ventura evaluated the dilemma. He called for right-hander Axelrod to throw three more balls to walk 20-year-old Harper, who had victimized White Sox pitches for five hits in the previous 10 at-bats including an RBI single the previous inning.
“Harper’s hot,” Ventura said. “. . . You’re rolling the dice either way. You just take your chance, and he got him.”
“That’s their decision,” said Nationals Manager Davey Johnson, flashing a wide grin. “Harp’s swinging pretty good. I’m glad I don’t have to make those decisions.”
Against right-handers, Zimmerman has a career .277 average and an .806 on-base plus slugging percentage, a formidable line. But this was the matchup Ventura wanted, against Zimmerman who entered the game hitting .222 but with five RBI. After working a full count, Zimmerman deposited Axelrod’s 103rd pitch to the warning track in right field. It was the first change-up Axelrod had thrown a right-handed batter all game. The White Sox’s plan backfired, and the minefield of the Nationals lineup had won again.
While Johnson believed the intentional walk lit a fire in Zimmerman, the third baseman played down the motivation.
“If I’m the manager I’d rather pitch a righty against a righty instead of a lefty but obviously Bryce, you don’t want to pitch to Bryce right now,” he said. “. . . I think it was just more of a matchup thing. I wouldn’t pitch a righty against Bryce right now either.”
Harper insists he wasn’t surprised by the move, a sign of respect for his ability in only his second season in the majors. He is used to being walked intentionally in high school and junior college, but the last time he was purposely put on first base in professional baseball was in 2011 in low-Class A Hagerstown.
“First base open,” he said. “Hitting righties pretty good and in a good spot to walk. So nothing I can do.”
Haren got his chance at redemption after stewing over his disappointing first impression for five long days. After allowing six runs and four homers in four innings against Cincinnati in its bandbox of a ballpark, Haren gave up 10 hits but limited the impact with only three runs. Haren allowed no home runs and walked none.
“I made a few less mistakes today, but I still got work to do to get better,” Haren said.
Mattheus pitched out of his own jam in a one-run sixth inning by striking out Paul Konerko looking on a wicked bending slider with two runners on base. He pitched a scoreless seventh inning and Johnson asked Clippard to set up in the eighth. After back-to-back saves, Johnson called on Soriano to test how often he could use him. Soriano fired a scoreless final inning and forcefully untucked his jersey. Another opponent had been vanquished, in large part to the potent lineup spearheaded by Harper, and now the Braves pitching staff awaits.