Since he made his major league debut in 2012, few players have shown as much grind and hustle as Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper. Whether he’s stretching a single into a double or chasing a fly ball to the point where he’s willing to run through walls, Harper puts 100 percent effort into everything he does, which makes what happened on Saturday even more surprising.
In the sixth inning of Saturday’s 4-3 loss to the Cardinals, Harper grounded out softly to Cardinals starter Lance Lynn and then jogged to first base before veering towards the dugout as Lynn threw the ball to first. After the inning, Harper was taken out of the game in favor of Kevin Frandsen, who took over in left field. Since Harper has been playing with a tight quad for the past few days, many assumed he was taken out of the game for injury reasons.
But manager Matt Williams revealed after the game that this was not the case, and that the run-till-they-tag-you poster child had been taken out of the game due to a lack of hustle. And once word got out about the benching, fans and analysts alike took to Twitter to voice their opinions, some of which were quite strong.
— keithlaw (@keithlaw) April 19, 2014
In my opinion, benching Harper was the wrong move by Williams. As it turned, out Harper’s spot in the lineup came up in the heart of the Nationals rally in the bottom of the ninth inning, in which Frandsen grounded out to third. Regardless of how good Frandsen has been for the Nationals this season and the fact that his grounder scored a run from third base, Harper had a better chance of driving in more runs in that situation. And even if the Nationals hadn’t rallied in the bottom of the ninth, they are a better team when Harper is in the lineup and on the field. Harper has also been nursing that tight quad, and if he’s hurt, he probably shouldn’t be running all-out all the time.
But to say that hiring Williams was a mistake based on his decision to bench Harper is ridiculous, especially when considering how minor the decision really was. Although the Nationals are a better team when Harper is in the game, his benching is not the reason they lost Saturday’s game.
The Nationals offense repeatedly failed to hit the ball out of the infield with runners in scoring position not just in the ninth inning, but also in the seventh and sixth innings (an Anthony Rendon double did drive in a run in the sixth, but Rendon was stranded at second after Ian Desmond grounded out and Danny Espinosa struck out to end the inning). The Nationals also hurt themselves, once again, with sloppy defense when an error by Rendon in the second inning ultimately led to the Cardinals taking an early 3-0 lead.
Failing to drive in runs and making errors — that is how you lose a baseball game. That is the reason why the Nationals have lost several games this season, and that is the reason why they lost on Saturday. Not because of Harper’s lack of hustle or because of Williams’s decision to pull him. To turn against Williams because of his decision to bench Harper is as absurd as suggesting that Harper needs to stay on the bench for several games due to his lack of hustle on one play, a suggestion which was made by several fans on Twitter.
Fortunately for Williams, Harper and the Nationals, the 21-year-old outfielder is expected to be back in the lineup on Sunday and everyone involved appears to have moved on from the issue, even though the media and Twitter police will likely dwell on this non-issue for the next several days. And who knows, maybe the situation will light a fire under Harper and he’ll go crazy with the bat over the next few days.
It’s impossible to know if the Nationals would’ve won the game if Harper had stayed in the lineup. One thing’s for certain, we probably won’t see Harper slacking again anytime soon. For good or for bad, Williams made a strong statement by benching Harper. And for a player who has shown time and time again that he learns from his mistakes (remember when he blew a kiss at a pitcher after hitting a home run?), that kind of statement can serve as a major wake-up call.
The decision to bench Harper is not as critical and drastic as some make it out to be, but it is certainly a decision that could have an impact on what we see from Harper in the next few weeks and the rest of the season. Only time will tell.