We've seen all season long that teams are going to tread carefully when Bryce Harper is at the plate. In Friday's game, we saw that taken to a bit of an extreme. With two outs and Yunel Escobar on second base in the first inning, Giants starter Jake Peavy intentionally walked Harper after falling behind 2-0. Peavy would go on to walk Harper in all three of their matchups Friday, only really challenging him in their final matchup in the seventh inning.
With all of the injuries currently hindering the lineup that the Nats are putting on the field, the strategy that the Giants employed against Harper is justifiable. Without a healthy Jayson Werth (or Ryan Zimmerman... or Anthony Rendon), the Nats don't have very many imposing bats behind Harper in the lineup. With Ian Desmond looking like a shell of the hitter that he's been the past few seasons, he certainly doesn't inspire a whole lot of fear for opposing pitchers or managers. Friday's lineup also lacked Wilson Ramos, which probably left Bruce Bochy thinking that he had a pretty good shot at shutting the Nats down if he could keep Harper from doing too much damage.
Limiting the damage against Harper was the one thing that the Giants pitching staff didn't do well against the Nats in the NLDS last postseason. In that four game series, Harper hit .294/.368/.882 with 3 HR, 4 RBI, and 4 Runs. For some perspective, the Nats scored just nine runs in the series. Harper hit three of their four home runs. He had four of their seven extra base hits. Offensively, Harper and Anthony Rendon were the only hitters in the lineup who gave them any kind of chance in the 2014 postseason.
Couple that lack of production from the rest of the lineup in their most recent series with Harper's terrific first half this season, and it's completely reasonable for the Giants to go into this series with the philosophy that they're going to make someone other than Harper beat them. As the season wears on and the contenders start separating themselves from the pretenders, we should get used to seeing this even more often than we have in the first half. Until a few more Nats hitters show that they can consistently make opponents pay behind Harper, it's going to be difficult to blame them for tiptoeing around him.
On Friday, the Giants paid the price for pussyfooting around Harper after the third time they did it. I'm thrilled for journeyman Clint Robinson, who hit his first home run at Nats Park behind a Harper walk to provide the difference in the Nats 2-1 win over San Francisco. It took a few tries, but Robinson dished out some karmic justice to the Giants for repeatedly pitching around the Nats best hitter to get to him.
Let's take a quick look at Harper's four plate appearances in Friday's game......
This is the first inning plate appearance. Yunel Escobar was on second after a two out double. Peavy started out by pitching around Harper, but Harper didn't chase either of the first two pitches. Peavy just took advantage of the open base at that point and put Harper on in front of Robinson, who ended up popping up to short right field.
Here's the fourth inning plate appearance. Harper stepped in with one out and the bases empty. Peavy fell behind with three pitches well off the plate before throwing the first strike Harper saw with a 3-0 count. He missed away for ball four. Robinson followed by lining out to center.
Of Harper's three walks on the day, this is the only one that he really had to work. The Giants had taken a 1-0 lead in the top of the seventh, so maybe Peavy decided to attack him a bit more here with the lead. Harper got a fastball down the middle to start the at bat, but fouled it off. He actually fell behind 1-2 before working his way back into the count and fouling off the first 3-2 pitch before taking a fastball just above the zone for ball four. Robinson followed that by drilling a 1-1 fastball over the wall in right center for the Nats only two runs.
Saturday should be an interesting game. While I imagine that Bruce Bochy will try and avoid Harper again in the Sunday night game when Ryan Vogelsong is starting, I'd anticipate him going after Harper in Saturday's matinee. With ace lefty Madison Bumgarner on the hill, the Giants should attack him. Bumgarner is outstanding no matter who he's facing, but he absolutely dominates left-handed hitters (.197/.258/.246 this season, .207/.250/.310 career). I wouldn't expect Friday night's hero (Robinson) to be in the lineup, as it will make sense for Matt Williams to go as right-handed heavy as possible.
That doesn't mean that Harper will be completely negated by Bumgarner. He's shown dramatic improvement against left-handed pitching so far this season, batting .333/.468/.613 against them. Entering play Friday, Harper's OBP was actually higher against LHP than RHP. Pay close attention to Harper's at bats against Bumgarner tomorrow... It should be fun to watch two of the very best in the game go head-to-head.