Walking Harper a polarizing, but savvy, tactic

Ausmus follows Maddon's lead in Washington, helping snap Tigers' skid

May 11th, 2016

WASHINGTON -- Events of the last week have demonstrated that one viable strategy for defeating the Washington Nationals is this: Walk Bryce Harper.

The Chicago Cubs did it over the weekend, sweeping a four-game series from the Nationals. They walked Harper 13 times over four games, setting a record for walks to one hitter in a series. This culminated in a 13-inning walk-fest on Sunday in which Harper was walked six times and once hit by a pitch. Three of the walks were intentional.

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The Detroit Tigers, who entered Tuesday night's 5-4 win over the Nationals having lost seven straight, came to the "walk Harper" conclusion at the game's most crucial moment. His team holding a one-run lead with one out in the ninth and a runner on second, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus opted to intentionally walk Harper.

This meant that Ausmus was putting the winning run on base, setting up a gold rush of second-guessing possibilities. But it also meant that he was making the right decision. Detroit closer Francisco Rodriguez issued the intentional walk, then struck out Ryan Zimmerman and got Daniel Murphy to fly out to center to end the game and seal the 394th save of Rodriguez's career.

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These are proven Major League hitters appearing after Harper in Washington's lineup. Zimmerman had already homered twice in this game before the ninth. Murphy finished the night with a .398 average. There is nothing like an automatic out following Harper.

"It's a lefty [Harper] facing a righty [Rodriguez] with a base open," Ausmus said in explaining his decision. "I knew that Zimmerman had hit a couple of home runs, but I just felt better righty-on-righty at that point.

"And then understanding that you've got Murphy that you've got to deal with either way ... K-Rod had to go through the heart of their order. There were no easy decisions.

"Quite frankly, I was thinking we could get Zimmerman on a double play and get out of the inning. But K-Rod got the job done regardless."

In light of the weekend walk-athon in Chicago, Ausmus was asked if the Tigers planned to walk Harper. His answer reflected exactly what happened on Tuesday night.

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"A lot of times, the game dictates whether you walk him or not," Ausmus said. "He's probably the most dangerous hitter in the game right now, so if you do pitch to him, you have to pitch to him carefully. And if you think he can beat you, you probably don't pitch to him at all."

Nationals starter Tanner Roark said that the Cubs were playing "scared baseball" in walking Harper six times. Ausmus politely took issue with that description.

"I don't think [Cubs manager] Joe Maddon was 'scared,'" Ausmus said. "I think he was trying to win the game. He was doing what he thought was the best thing for the Chicago Cubs and winning the baseball game. Joe thought that was the best way to do it."

Maddon's take on the strategy?

"If you're a Cubs fan, you loved it. If not, you don't," Maddon said. "It was just a strategy of the game based on how they built their group. That's what it came down to. It's nothing I did. We had to react to the moment. ... It happens every day. It just happened more often than not in [Sunday's] game."

The Tigers have not simply walked Harper as a matter of routine. He had nine plate appearances in the first two games of this series. Harper was walked three times, including the intentional walk in Tuesday's ninth inning. He was hitless in these two games.

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With the game on the line, and the Tigers desperately searching for a victory, Ausmus chose to walk Harper, even though that meant putting the winning run on base. It was the right move. It was a move that was right because of the percentages and because it held Harper in suitably high regard.

The fact that it worked also makes it easier to describe as the right move. But that is not the core issue. Walking Bryce Harper doesn't have to be done incessantly, but with the game on the line, it still is a viable notion.