What does Bryce Harper have in common with Alex Ovechkin, Karl Malone, and Andy Reid? He’s perennially attached to a team, teams for Malone and Reid, that are excellent in the regular season but never make it in the playoffs. They could start a support group for stars who never won the big prize. Who knows? Maybe it already exists. I wonder if they would let Glenn Close and Amy Adams attend? The actresses have been nominated for an Oscar six and five times respectively without giving an acceptance speech. Hillary Clinton could moderate the meetings.
Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning would have left the group in 2007, Andy Murray in 2012, Sergio Garcia in 2017. Ovechkin’s Capitals are 3-2 up on the defending Stanley Cup Champions going into tonight’s Game 6 but they’ve blown similar opportunities more than once against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Forgive me if I don’t revoke his membership card just yet.
MLB Betting Picks are again winning at a remarkable rate and will continue through the 2018 World Series.
Harper has felt similar pain in the playoffs. Since 2012, his rookie campaign, the Nats have made the Major League Baseball playoffs four times, missing only in 2013 and 2015. In each case, they crashed out in the National League Division Series. Worse, each series went the maximum five games, save for 2014 against the eventual World Series Champion Giants. In 2012, the Cardinals sent Washington packing. In 2015, it was the Dodgers. Last season it was the defending World Series champion Cubs.
The brash outfielder began this campaign hitting cleanup for his fourth manager. Dave Martinez took over for Dusty Baker in the offseason, coming from the Cubs, where he had been on Joe Maddon’s staff. If you can’t beat ’em, steal their coaches.
As managers go, Maddon has a reputation for being relaxed in the clubhouse and tactically flexible in the dugout. Martinez emulates the latter trait.
Washington was mediocre in April, playing sub-.500 baseball in the moribund National League East. With a rotation that includes Max Scherzer, Steven Strasbourg, and Gio Gonzalez, you would expect better. Then again, it’s early and Martinez is just finding out what he has.
One problem he encountered in the season’s second week was opponents pitching around Harper. Slugging third baseman Anthony Rendon had fouled a ball off his toe and needed three weeks to recover. He is just now back in the lineup, trying to rediscover his timing. Without Rendon’s protection, pitchers could walk Harper in any dangerous situation and frequently did. As a result, he is not hitting for average but has an excellent on-base percentage.
Conveniently, the right fielder’s 34 starts project easily to his career high in appearances: 153. If he holds his current pace, he would hit 54 home runs, knock in 126 runs, score 130, and steal 18 bases from the cleanup spot even while being walked regularly.
But other Nats weren’t providing much support. Washington was struggling to score. Martinez adapted by slotting his most dangerous hitter in the leadoff position. Now, rather than trying to drive people in, Harper’s responsibility is to get on base. Walk him all you like.
Martinez made the shift on May 1st. The team responded by winning 5 and losing one. That 3-1 defeat to the Phillies was the only time the team failed to score at least three runs in the six games. They rang up 24 against the Pirates, then 13 against the Phillies, including the loss when they only scored once.
If Martinez decides to bat Harper in the one-hole all season, his RBI numbers may suffer. Then again, maybe not. Opponents will have less reason to pitch around him. Last season, Yankee slugger Aaron Judge hit 13 of his 52 HRs (25%) in 28 of his 155 appearances (18%).
It goes against conventional wisdom to lead off with your most powerful hitter, but if Harper is also their best hitter, why not? The Nats 5-1 record to open May lifted them a game over .500. They remain in fourth but are only two games behind division leaders Philadelphia.
Of course, the six games came at the end of a homestand. The next trick will be to see whether they can maintain their momentum on the road. Stephen Strasbourg opened a series at Petco Park against San Diego last night. He was coming off a seven-inning win over the Pirates in which he struck out 11. The Padres, anchoring the National League West following a 13-22 start, countered with Tyler Ross.
Strasburg went seven innings again, striking out five. Harper had an off night, going 0/4 with a walk but the middle of the order picked up the slack, especially in the four-run sixth. Rendon, Matt Adams, and Howie Kendrick all had two-hit games. First baseman Adams drove in five. The 8-5 win suggests Martinez made the right adjustment.
The series continues tonight and tomorrow. Gametimes are 10:10 and 9:10 Eastern respectively.
Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.