Manager Matt Williams made a much bigger mistake than Bryce Harper — if you even call what Harper did a mistake — by benching his young star after he didn't hustle to first base on a ground ball back to the pitcher Saturday afternoon. Williams lectured Harper and removed him in the sixth inning, leaving the Washington Nationals short one of their most potent bats during a ninth-inning rally.
The Nats fell 4-3 to the St. Louis Cardinals, but the outcome might have been different had Harper been given a chance to redeem himself in his team's last at-bat. Instead, Kevin Frandsen hit, and made an out. No offense to Frandsen, but the Nats lost something in the exchange there.
Williams gave little indication that he had second thoughts, or learned any lessons himself, by the time he spoke to reporters.
Williams went out of his way to point out Harper's spot came up in the Nats' last rally. Said it was "too bad for his teammates."— Adam Kilgore (@AdamKilgoreWP) April 19, 2014
The kind of play in question is one fans and managers have seen a million times, but this might be the first time in 999,999 that a player was punished to the degree Harper was. He led off the bottom of the sixth, tapped back to Lance Lynn, put his head down and shuffled to first base. Harper probably was sulking in the moment, disappointed he hit the ball barely 60 feet. But not even the world's fastest man was going to beat the ball to the first baseman's mitt.
Williams's point seems to be, "Well, you never know." The ball could be bobbled, the pitcher could stumble, a gust of wind could come, etc. Plus, it just looks better when you run hard. It's not unreasonable, at first blush. He expounded via the Washington Post:
“There’s a million reasons why. The transfer rules that we’ve seen lately. What if that guy bobbles the ball as he’s throwing it around? If he doesn’t touch the base, he’s out. If he’s in the dugout, he’s automatically out. Beyond the all the just-run-90-feet stuff, there’s a real, tangible rule behind it now. So we must do that. And he understands that.”
Well, the "transfer rules" were never going to be an issue, or shouldn't have been, because Harper was leading off the inning. There were no other runners on base, nowhere for the first baseman to throw to. If the umps call Matt Adams for dropping the ball because of the transfer rules, that's their nightmare.
So, what about running it out at maximum? It should be noted that, most of the time, a batter will not run with maximum effort to first base on plays like that. Up and down the league, that's the case. Pitchers almost never do in the National League, to protect their legs. And Harper is nursing a leg injury, a sore quad. He said after the game that his injury did not prevent him from running hard, but that's not even the issue. A quad injury could have been made worse by a wholly unnecessary sprint to first, even if he "felt fine" before running.
And if Bryce Harper, after what happened to him a season ago, had pulled up lame sprinting to first base on a grounder back to the pitcher, we'd be asking why he was sprinting when it wasn't necessary. We'd be calling it "false hustle." A season ago, Harper was "too aggressive" for running hard all of the time, into fences, into other players, etc. It was getting him injured. The Nats wanted him to cool it a little. Now, when his instinct to jog to first was the safe — and correct — way to play, he's some kind of daydreamer. Give everyone a huge personal break, Matt Williams.
It's debatable whether hustling at every moment is actually a good thing. What nobody will deny: The Nationals are better with Harper in the lineup. Matt Williams controls the lineup.
No doubt humbled (humiliated is more like it), Harper set the right tone after the game by saying the minimum:
Harper didn't have much to say, but said, "I respect" Williams's decision.— Adam Kilgore (@AdamKilgoreWP) April 19, 2014
What could the manager have done instead? Taken Harper aside in the dugout and tell him to run the next one out (even though, heh, it might not have been the best thing for Harper's legs right now). It would have been a better move than the grandstanding Williams did, letting everyone know who the boss was by benching one of his best players. Does Harper sound like an unreasonable guy in that quote? If he had been reminded to run harder, he would have. And the "lesson" Williams wanted to get out there would have.
But if this is how Williams makes his decisions — by taking Harper's bat out of the lineup when his teammates needed it the most — it might not be the best thing to let everyone know who is in charge. Williams wasn't being a leader Saturday, he was being a tyrant.
It's April, in his first year on the job. He'll learn. He do better. But if the Nats miss the NL East title or wild card by a game, just remember who might have lost it.
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