If this past weekend’s Cubs-Nationals series was any indication, Bryce Harper is becoming this generation’s Barry Bonds.
If anyone should know what it’s like to manage such a player, it’s current Washington manager Dusty Baker, who ironically also managed Bonds in San Francisco. Baker might have been having flashbacks to his Giants days this past weekend, when the Cubs walked Harper 13 times in four games, including six times during the Cubs’ eventual 13-inning, 4-3 victory on Sunday. Harper, the reigning NL MVP, was also hit by a pitch on Sunday, meaning he came to the plate seven times and didn’t have an official at-bat.
Officially, many of those walks in the series were unintentional, though it was clear that Cubs manager Joe Maddon had no interest in pitching to Harper and wanted to make the rest of the team beat him. In both the 10th and 12th innings, with runners on first and second and two outs, Maddon defied conventional wisdom and intentionally put Harper on both times to load the bases. And both times, Cubs pitchers were able to retire Ryan Zimmerman to end the inning with no damage done.
Those moves would have been second guessed ad nauseam in the media had they backfired. But instead, Maddon looks like a genius for putting the pressure on the struggling Zimmerman in both situations. It’s similar to applying double coverage to a team’s best wide receiver in the NFL. In any team sport, it’s always embarrassing to let the other team’s star player beat you. Forcing the rest of the team to contribute is just smart baseball. Harper even seemed to acknowledge that after the game. “They had a plan, and unfortunately, it worked,” Harper said.
But one player who didn’t take it quite as well was Sunday’s starting pitcher for the Nationals, Tanner Roark, who later called the Cubs’ strategy “scared baseball”. The temptation is there for Cubs fans to ridicule him for just being bitter that his team lost all four games in the series. Admittedly it was not the smartest thing to say. But all of us have said things in the heat of the moment that we later regretted, so there’s a part of me that can forgive him and also admire him for standing up for his teammate. I’m sure that if he’s later thinking more clearly about the situation, he will recognize that there was a lot of merit in the Cubs using this strategy.
And it’s not like Roark was entirely wrong. In a way, the Cubs were indeed scared to pitch to Harper. That’s why they walked him so much. But they didn’t do it purely out of fear. They did it with confidence that this was the best way to win each game and that their pitchers could execute their game plan against Zimmerman and the other Nationals hitters. That type of confidence is a big reason why this team is 24-6 and already beginning to run away with the NL Central division.
Maybe some of Maddon’s tactics will rub opposing teams the wrong way. But that’s their problem, not his. The Cubs aren’t playing dirty. They’re winning fair and square. If it irritates a few people along the way, so be it.