SAN FRANCISCO — There’s a certain rhythm to a baseball brawl. A player gets drilled and inches toward the mound, often at the invitation of the man who threw the pitch. The catcher rushes to get in the way as both benches and bullpens clear. Within five seconds, most baseball “fights” turn into a “hold me back” tournament.
Monday’s showdown between Hunter Strickland and Bryce Harper was not your normal baseball fight, in part because it was a long time coming.
Three years after Harper twice took Strickland deep in the NLDS, the second homer leading to a stare down and primal screams from the Nationals’ best player, the two met again. Strickland’s first pitch to Harper since that series was a 98 mph fastball directly at the hip. Harper charged the mound and both players connected with shots before sanity was restored.
Strickland was waiting for reporters when the clubhouse opened after a 3-0 loss. He denied any intent.
“Obviously I’ve left the ball over the plate a couple of times to him and he’s taken advantage of that. It was mostly to go inside and obviously I got it in a little bit too far,” Strickland said. “I didn’t expect that (fight) but it’s part of the game and that’s what he decided to do.”
There’s no upside in coming out and saying you flat-out tried to hit a guy, but actions spoke louder than words during the fight and afterward. Buster Posey didn’t move as Harper charged his pitcher, as if to say, this is your mess. Bruce Bochy said he talked to Strickland after the fight to reiterate that this was not the situation to seek payback.
“We’re trying to win a ballgame,” Bochy said. “It’s 2-0 and I had to talk to him. Obviously we don’t take or do things that are out of the ordinary from what I want. We go out there and try to win a ballgame. It’s a situation where I needed to talk to him and make sure that we’re straight with something. We did talk.”
Bochy called the incident “unfortunate” and said a couple of times that “it looks bad.”
“You have two guys that probably don’t care for each other much,” he said.
No, they certainly don’t, but that’s nothing new. This started in Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS, when Harper, already one of the league’s better hitters, took Strickland, then a rookie, deep. Three games later he hit a game-tying shot into McCovey Cove, watching it as it soared into the dark night. He stared Strickland down as he rounded second and yelled back at the mound as he took his gear off in the dugout.
It’s unclear why that first incident quite turned out the way it did. There was some speculation that Harper was reacting to Strickland saying after Game 1 that he would throw Harper more fastballs. After the second homer, Harper looked out at the field and yelled, "Let's go! Again!" Either way, nothing more came of that first tussle. The Giants eliminated the Nationals and went on to win the World Series. Harper and Strickland didn’t square off in either of the past two seasons.
With two outs in the eighth Monday, they finally faced off again. After taking the pitch off the hip, Harper pointed his bat and then flung it down. The players exchanged expletives and Strickland stood with a calm expression on his face, his glove dropped to the ground. Harper threw his helmet toward second and Strickland got the first shot in, an open-handed right to the face. Harper got one good punch in before players from both sides collided on the mound.
“It’s go time,” Strickland said. “You’ve got to protect yourself and stand your own grand, you know.”
Harper told Nationals reporter that this was probably the first time he was certain a pitcher was going to throw at him.
“One thing I’ve got to say about Strickland: He hit me in the right spot. I do respect him for that. He didn’t come up and in at my face or anything like that, which some guys do," Harper said. "So I respect him on that level, because he could’ve come up and in and got me somewhere you don’t want to get hit. He got me on the hip. But there’s some times where it’s just not relevant. That was a spot where it wasn’t relevant. It was three years ago, over 1,000 days. I don’t know why he’s thinking about it.”
Strickland claimed he wasn’t thinking about 2014, even if the connection was immediate to anyone watching.
“I can see how that kind of stands in people’s minds, but that’s the past,” he said. “Like I said, I left the ball over the plate a couple of times to him and he’s taken advantage of that. Obviously I’d rather miss in than over the plate.”