Walk this way: Harper shows he's a team player

After walking six times on Sunday, Nationals RF proves patience is a virtue

May 9th, 2016

CHCAGO -- No wonder Bryce Harper wants to make baseball fun again. He's barely being allowed to participate.

That was the case this weekend, for sure. The Cubs gave the reigning National League Most Valuable Player Award winner the Barry Bonds treatment, even on Sunday, when you would have thought they'd have been above it.

They had Jake Arrieta on the mound, having won his past 17 decisions and having one of the best stretches of pitching in the sport's history. But one of the beauties of baseball is that you never really know what you're going to see in a game.

So why not a record-tying six walks to Harper in a four-hour, 54-minute, 13-inning spectacular won by the Cubs, 4-3, on a ringing line drive into the left-field bleachers by Javier Baez?

It was certainly that kind of a weekend for the Nationals. They came to Wrigley Field having ridden Harper and their strong pitching staff to a sweep in St. Louis and a series victory in Kansas City. But they head home after a four-game sweep in which the Cubs basically took the bat out of Harper's hands.

"It's happened before to me, not at this level, but when I was younger -- high school, college and whatnot,'' Harper said. "They had a plan and they stuck with their plan, and unfortunately it worked. We battled. We battled on the whole road trip. We finish the road trip 5-5. We'll take that any day of the week.''

After hitting his 10th home run on Wednesday at Kauffman Stadium, Harper was 1-for-4 with 13 walks (four intentional), a sacrifice fly and a hit-by-pitch as the rampaging Cubs served humble pie to the visitors. He'll open the Nats' homestand against the Tigers and Marlins hitting .265 with 27 RBIs, 30 walks and a 1.065 OPS in 31 games.

Facing Arrieta, you figured Harper would be challenged in the series finale.

"Yeah because he's a challenge type guy,'' Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "Apparently he was following the game plan. That's just how it goes for the series.''

Shockingly, Harper had seven plate appearances overall and never swung at a single pitch. He wound up becoming the fourth player in history with six walks in a game -- matching a mark set by Jimmie Foxx and tied by Andre Thornton and, most recently, Jeff Bagwell in 1999 -- and being hit by a Trevor Cahill pitch in the one trip to the plate that didn't end with a walk.

Harper was twice intentionally walked with men on first and second, and he wound up seeing only two called strikes among 27 pitches he faced. He left Chicago having watched the last 36 pitches he faced go by, including the last nine on Saturday walks.

Baker managed Bonds with the Giants and never saw the seven-time NL MVP Award winner walked six times in a game, not even in his 198-walk season in 2002. He compared the strategy employed by Cubs manager Joe Maddon, pitching coach Chris Bosio and the Cubs' pitching staff as being similar to the "Hack-a-Shaq'' strategy employed in the NBA.

Baker was asked if it is a strategy other teams will copy when they face the powerful Nats.

"It might be,'' he said. "But the fans didn't come here to see Harper walk. They came here to see him swing the bat. But until we start swinging the bat behind him, that [might continue].''

Maddon was asked about Harper before Sunday's game, and he made it clear how much the Cubs respect him.

"Incredible bat speed,'' Maddon said. "Incredible bat speed. When the bat comes through the strike zone, you understand why he can mishit balls and hit balls out of ballparks. That's what really stands out. [He has] an incredible eye for the strike zone and this above-and-beyond bat speed. It's just different.''

While Harper was being pitched around, Nationals cleanup hitter Ryan Zimmerman was 1-for-7 with two strikeouts. He was 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position as his batting average dropped to .236.

Both Baker and Harper are sure he'll be just fine, however.

"He's been around for a long, long time,'' Harper said. "I really don't think it's going to bother him at all. We lost, plain and simple.''

This day was set up to be about Arrieta versus Harper. But the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner avoided Harper and wasn't sharp otherwise, allowing three runs in five innings. He was on the hook for his first regular-season loss since Cole Hamels' no-hitter at Wrigley Field last July before Kris Bryant tied the score in the seventh with a two-run single.

Arrieta seemed determined to get Harper to swing at a bad pitch, and that wasn't happening. He walked him on four pitches (all close to the strike zone) in the first inning, on five pitches in the third inning and then intentionally to get to Zimmerman with two on in the fourth inning.

Was Harper surprised Arrieta didn't challenge him?

"You never know,'' he said. "I think the way he approaches the game, he tries to pound the strike zone, but also he pitches to his strengths. That's what he does and sometimes he goes off them. I don't think he's going to change his plan to get me to go this way or that way. You're just trying to go up there, wait for your pitch to drive. I didn't really get anything over the plate I could drive. He nibbled little bit on outside of plate at 3-1 [in the third inning], and I got the call and got to go to first.''

Harper's patience was astounding. There's no other word for it. He made the Cubs pay with his speed in the third inning, scoring from first on Zimmerman's grounder off the end of Bryant's glove at third base.

Harper was running on the pitch and flew around the bases when the ball ricocheted into the Cubs' bullpen area. He says he never feels the need to swing at something close.

"I don't need to, plain and simple,'' he said. "If I can get a pitch down the middle of the plate, then I'll swing. If not, then I'm not [swinging].''

Harper is ready if other teams want to borrow the Cubs' approach.

"I think a couple weeks ago, I was getting frustrated with it, but now I'm getting back into where I was last year, just trying to take my walk, look for a pitch to drive and see what I can do with it,'' he said. "You can't get frustrated getting on base [when] that's what your team asks you to do. If I can get on base every time I get up there, I'm doing it the right way. If that's a hit, a walk, I get drilled, whatever. It happens that way sometimes. You get on base and hopefully steal second and third.''

Harper's team was defeated this time, but he remains undaunted.