Bryce Harper hasn’t logged an official at-bat in his last 11 plate appearances. He was walked a grand total of 13 times during a four-game series against the Cubs, and set an MLB record by reaching base seven times in Sunday’s game without recording an at-bat: He was walked three times, intentionally walked three times, and hit by a pitch. The Cubs won yesterday’s game 4-3 in extra innings, and swept the four-game series.
And that’s all that matters, that Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s Harper-icing strategy worked. It may seem crazy for a player, even one as supremely talented as Harper, to be getting the Barry Bonds treatment at age 23, but nobody can argue with the results. The Nationals currently have Ryan Zimmerman hitting behind Harper, and all he did was go 2-for-19 in the series, while stranding an astounding 14 runners in Sunday’s game alone. The Nats can call out Maddon for playing “scared baseball” all they want, but shit-talking won’t put an end to this. If they don’t want the rest of the league following Maddon’s lead and damning Harper to a season spent in first-base purgatory, they need to find a way to protect his at-bats.
That’s a lot easier said than done, because, uh, have you looked at the Nationals’ lineup recently? Zimmerman is about as old and broken down as old-and-broken-down former stars get, Jayson Werth has a .700 OPS and a nice beard, and Anthony Rendon appears to still be a shell of his former self. The one guy who has been thumping is Daniel Murphy—he’s hitting .395/.439/.640 to go along with four homers—and although manager Dusty Baker might wince at the thought of putting back-to-back lefties in the middle of his lineup, I don’t think he really has any other choice.
If Harper continues to be pitched around, what will be even more interesting than watching how Baker adjusts will be seeing how Harper decides to deal with it. Barry Bonds was a wise old hitter by the time he became a deity, and a handful of good pitches a week was all he needed to sock 40-plus dingers a year. But Harper is 23 and just now starting to reach his peak—it’s easy to forget that people were eagerly slapping the DISAPPOINTMENT label on him just two years ago—and I can’t imagine how hard it is to have the bat taken out of your hands just as you start to get a real grip on the game. I mean, are we sure these are the voices of some rowdy bros in this clip, and not Harper’s inner monologue?
It seems unfair to ask Harper to stand there and take his walk four times a game and also hit the few pitches he does see into the gap or out of the park. Not everyone can be an alien space god, you know? But unless the Nats can miraculously find a few more bats to fill the lineup, that might be precisely the task Harper has in front of him.