The Cubs put the reigning National League MVP on base seven times Sunday. But they weren’t going to let him beat them.
Bryce Harper walked an incredible six times during Sunday’s game, three of those intentional passes and two of those loading the bases. But with all the time Harper spent at first base, he touched home plate just once.
So the Cubs’ bold strategy — one that harkened back to the days when teams would do anything to take the bat out of Barry Bonds’ hands — worked like a charm. The Nationals scored just three times during Sunday's 13-inning marathon, a 4-3 Cubs win, a number that would’ve almost certainly been higher had Harper been allowed to put his bat on the ball.
“You know how good he is, and why tempt fate right there?” manager Joe Maddon said. “Now if the other guy gets you, that’s fine, you have no problem with that whatsoever. I know he’s not been as hot as he can be coming into this series, but you don’t want to get him hot. I’ve been part of that in the past. So we did what we thought we had to do today, and it happened to work.”
Harper walked in his first two plate appearances, motoring around from first on Ryan Zimmerman’s double off Kris Bryant’s glove at third base in the third inning. But that was the last time Harper’s incredible skill would hurt the home team.
After Jake Arrieta loaded the bases with two hits and an error to start the fourth, he got two consecutive outs resulting in just one run. But with two runners still in scoring position, the Cubs elected to give Harper first base with four intentional balls. Zimmerman struck out to end the inning in the ensuing at-bat.
After Harper was hit by a pitch in the sixth to reach first for the fourth time — again resulting in no scoreboard damage — and walked harmlessly in the eighth, the Cubs again intentionally walked him to load the bases with two outs in the 10th. Zimmerman flew out to right field to end that inning.
Once more, with two down in the 12th, the Cubs gave Harper an intentional free pass. That one came the closest to biting them, as Zimmerman tapped a grounder to third that required a nice pick and a rocket throw from Javier Baez to barely nab a sliding Zimmerman at first and end the inning. Perhaps the outcome had been different had the Nationals not exhausted their challenges earlier in the game.
But all in all, it was a winning strategy, arguably the difference in a game where any one run would’ve changed the result.
“It’s part of our job. Maybe there’s going to be a guy in their lineup and maybe we don’t like the matchup, we’d rather pitch to the guy that’s on deck,” Arrieta said. “We have faith in all our guys here. It showed today the way they all threw out of the ‘pen, really picked us up.”
Harper walked a ridiculous 13 times in the weekend’s four-game series, a sign of his terrific on-base abilities as much as the Cubs’ decision to take the bat out of his hands. But with all those trots down to first base, Harper didn’t do much damage. He had just one hit, scored three runs and drove in only one.
Considering Harper led the NL with 42 homers and 118 runs scored last season and led all of baseball with a .649 slugging percentage, it looks like the Cubs’ made the right move.
“It’s something we go over before each series, the guys that we’re not going to allow to beat us throughout a series. That’s kind of the situation that came up, and we handled it accordingly,” Arrieta said. “It worked out. 4-0 against them at home is something that we’ll take any day.”