It’s been a rough season for Bryce Harper. At the plate, of course, he’s having his best season as a pro, and he’s a lock to win the NL MVP award. But it has to be painful for Harper to put up that kind of performance, only to see his teammates bumble and stumble to a mediocre second place finish. Harper did his part this year, and more. His teammates, however, consistently let him down.
Last night, he was let down again. In case you missed it, Nats reliever Jonathan Papelbon was ejected after throwing at the head of Manny Machado, perhaps in retaliation for the latter’s “pimping” after his home run in the 7th inning. Is it possible Papelbon momentarily lost his control, and wasn’t intentionally throwing at Machado? Perhaps, but the circumstantial evidence here is pretty damning. Papelbon twice threw in the direction of Machado’s head in three pitches. When asked about it after the game, Papelbon didn’t really defend himself too strongly, instead saying “perception is reality.” Maybe Papelbon wasn’t trying to hit Machado, and was only trying to “brush him back.” If so, that defense wouldn’t quite hold up in a court of law. Your honor, I was trying to fire the gun over the head of the victim! I wasn’t trying to kill him. Sure buddy, you’re going to jail.
Whether Papelbon intentionally hit Machado is irrelevant at this point anyway, because everyone thinks he did, including the Orioles. Perception is reality. And now today, Bryce Harper will probably be hit by a pitch, because that’s the way these things work.
Harper has unfortunately been on the wrong end of intentional beanings since he came in the league. Cole Hamels famously hit Harper during Bryce’s first week in the league, for no particular reason. The Braves continually hit Harper throughout the 2013 season, for largely imagined offenses against the sacred Unwritten Rules of Baseball. The idea of enforcing sportsmanship or tradition through beanballs is stupid, archaic, and dangerous. I hated it when teams did it against Harper, and I hate it even more when the Nats do it, which is what appears to be the case with Papelbon and Machado.
While I generally hate pitchers intentionally throwing at batters, I have no problem with teams retaliating. If the Orioles throw at Harper today, it’ll be hard to blame them. Throwing at Machado last night was immature and dangerous. The Orioles pitchers are justified in sending a message they won’t tolerate it. It’s not about revenge. It’s not about taking the “high road” or the “low road.” It’s about preventing it from happening again.
In the past, I’ve criticized Nationals pitchers for not protecting Harper. In 2013, Stephen Strasburg eventually threw a pitch at Justin Upton after the Braves hit Bryce on multiple occasions. The retaliation generally worked, but it took way too long, and Bryce was hit way too many times before a Nationals pitcher stepped in to defend him. Earlier this season, Gio Gonzalez chickened out after a pretty blatant intentional beaning against the Reds. Tanner Roark retaliated the next day. You can bet Bryce takes note of which Nats pitchers have his back, and which ones don’t.
Retaliating when your players are targeted is only one way to protect your hitters, however. The most effective way is to avoid these pointless beanball wars in the first place. The last four years, I’ve grown weary of seeing Bryce Harper hit by pitches. Unfortunately, we might see another one today. For that, the Nats can only blame themselves.