In the Washington Nationals' 5-4 series-opening loss to Chicago on Monday, Harper went walkless in five plate appearances, including a crucial ninth-inning at-bat that saw the slugger step into the box as the potential winning run. It was a stark departure from last season, when the Cubs avoided Harper like LaVar Ball avoids silence.
In seven games against Chicago last year, the 2015 NL MVP drew a total of 16 walks, 13 of which came during a four-game set at Wrigley Field in May. In the finale of that series, Harper tied a major league record by tallying six free passes, including three intentional walks. The strategy worked like a charm as the guy hitting behind Harper -- struggling cleanup man Ryan Zimmerman -- went 2-for-19 in the series and left 20 runners on base, including a record-setting 14 in the finale. A year later, with a rejuvenated Zimmerman leading the National League in hitting and placing himself firmly in the MVP conversation -- and with Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon raking behind Zimmerman -- all eyes were on the 3-hole to see how exactly Maddon would handle Harper. It took a little while to find out.
In each of his first three at-bats on Monday, Harper came to the plate with nobody on and relatively little at stake. In the bottom of the first, with his team trailing 1-0, the Nats slugger lined a single to left off of Chicago starter Eddie Butler. In the third, again with the bases empty, he did the same thing -- except shortstop Javier Baez made a leaping grab to prevent a base hit, the first of several sizzling plays by the Cubs' fielding phenom. In the fifth, Harper again came up with nobody on and whiffed against Butler. But things got interesting late in the game.
In the eighth inning, with two away, a runner on first, and Chicago clinging to a 1-0 lead, Maddon could’ve kept right-handed reliever Koji Uehara in the game and had him walk the left-handed-hitting Harper to get to the righty Zimmerman. Instead, the Cubs' skipper summoned southpaw Brian Duensing -- the only lefty in the bullpen -- who yielded a sharply hit infield single that bounced off the rubber for Harper’s second hit of the game. But the Nats failed to capitalize when Zimmerman, hitless in three previous at-bats, grounded out against righty Justin Grimm. An inning later, it was more of the same.
Despite being down 5-0 heading into the bottom of the ninth, Washington rallied to cut its deficit to 5-3 with two outs. That’s when Harper stepped in against Wade Davis. Even though there were runners on first and second, with Harper representing the potential winning run, the Cubs' closer came right after him. Harper responded by flaring a single to shallow left to load the bases. That brought up Zimmerman, who on this night, despite being the best hitter in baseball the first three months of the season and despite Nats fans chanting “M-V-P” on multiple occasions, looked more like the 2016 version of himself. After watching pinch runner Wilmer Difo score on a wild pitch to make it 5-4, Washington’s cleanup hitter failed to clean up, striking out to end a game in which he went 0-for-5 and left five men on base.
“I was just trying to get a good pitch and not do too much,” said Zimmerman, who’s now 1-for-15 with runners in scoring position against the Cubs since the beginning of the 2016 season. “The 2-2 curveball, [Davis] made a really good pitch. The 1-2 fastball away, I’ve got to do something with that pitch.”
Instead, much like last season against the Cubs, he wasn’t able to do much of anything.
Despite his teammate's futility flashback, the face of the Washington franchise isn’t the least bit concerned.
“Last year is last year,” Harper said. “Whatever we're doing this year, try to keep it going. Zim's done a great job for us, Murphy as well. I mean, one through eight, pick your poison.”
At least for one night, Maddon picked his poison and got away with it.