The Washington Nationals arrived at Turner Field on Saturday night with the look of a middle-schooler who had been stuffed in a locker one too many times. Punked by the boys. Mocked by the girls. Even the principal was trying not to laugh when they walked down the hall.
Didn’t you just know they were going to have one or two “Carrie” moments?
So it happened. We knew it was coming. It was premeditated assault, even if baseball “purists” view it as one of those embraceable unwritten rules of the game. The Braves’ Justin Upton certainly knew the Plunk Pitch was coming from Stephen Strasburg, even if he resisted the temptation to wear a full suit of armor for his first inning at-bat. One pitch after Jason Heyward’s leadoff homer, Strasburg threw a 97 mph fastball at Upton’s rump.
Umpire Marvin Hudson warned Strasburg and both teams. But nobody left the dugout. Upton barely reacted. He just turned and jogged to first, as if to say, “Me and my playoff-bound tuchus will be going to first base now.”
What was it Washington manager Davey Johnson said before the game when asked if the Nationals would retaliate for all of the bruises covering Bryce Harper’s body, courtesy of Braves pitchers?
“I never order a pitcher to go after anybody, but we have a way of protecting our own,” Johnson said.
Yeah. Let me translate: “Neidermeyer, dead.”
If nothing else, this last week-and-a-half has added some needed entertainment to the National League East race. Not intrigue, just entertainment.
Upton did his slow home-run trot in Washington. Bryce Harper did his slow home-run trot the following night. The next time Harper came to the plate, Julio Teheran threw at him (intentionally/unintentionally … OK, duh). Harper gave the death stare. The benches emptied. Food fight!
It also sparked the rarely seen Twitter war between organizations. (Braves: “Clown move bro.” Nationals: “Which part, giving up the home run, or drilling the 20-year-old on the first pitch his next time up?” Understand, marketing people bruise easily. So they don’t throw baseballs. They just take shots in cyberspace.)
When the Nationals came to Atlanta this weekend, they were battered, beaten and humiliated. They once were proud, cocky and also pretty good. Now, it’s like somebody cut off their pants legs. They’re dead in the division race. They can’t even work themselves into a frenzy for a wild-card spot. The Braves had won 10 of 13 meetings against them entering this series.
Then came Friday. The Braves not only won 3-2 in 10 innings, Harper was dented twice by pitchers Alex Wood and Luis Avilan. It didn’t matter whether there was intent (analysis: Wood’s pitch, no way; Avilan’s pitch, not likely, but it’s not as certain). Washington figured to respond with some counterattack. Maybe water balloons.
This is a much bigger deal for the Nationals than the Braves. The reason is kind of obvious. The Braves are going to the playoffs. The Nationals are circling the drain. Griping and throwing beanballs — hey, those actually are welcome distractions in Washington from looking at the standings.
“You know what? It’s a big boy’s game,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said before the 15-inning, 8-7 loss to the Nationals, while denying again that either pitch that hit Harper on Friday was intentional.
It may be a big boy’s game. But in cases such as this, players resemble toddlers, high on sugar and low on sleep, whining in the sandbox.
That’s especially true for the Nationals, and particularly for Strasburg, who either went psycho Saturday or at least forgot which way was north. He was ejected in the second inning after throwing three straight wild pitches, including consecutive pitches behind Andrelton Simmons.
Strasburg immediately descended the dugout steps to consult with his mentor, Nuke LaLoosh, and possibly a defense attorney. The situation — a 4-1 Nationals’ lead with Schafer on base — doesn’t suggest Strasburg would be looking to intentionally throw at Simmons. But we’re not exactly dealing with sane minds right now, are we? Strasburg finished the evening with two walks, three wild pitches and a hit batter in one-plus innings. Officially, that’s one felony and several misdemeanors.
Here’s Strasburg on hitting Upton: “I’m not going to get into that.”
Here’s Strasburg on throwing behind Simmons twice: “I got cold and missed some spots.”
Yes. By a furlong.
When asked if he understood why he was ejected, Strasburg said, “Sure, it makes sense.”
Nationals coach Randy Knorr said of the Strasburg hitting Upton, “Well they hit Harper quite a bit. So I don’t know if somebody said something or he decided to do it on his own, but if he did it on his own I’m proud of him.”
Johnson, who was ejected automatically with Strasburg, also didn’t have a problem with plunking Upton (“After somebody goes deep and you hit [the next batter] in the rear end, I don’t think it’s a big deal.”) but believes Strasburg just lost his command in the second.
The Braves weren’t sure what was wrong with Strasburg but didn’t believe he was throwing at Simmons. “[He] just didn’t look right,” Gonzalez said.
There was just one final question: Is this beanball spat over?
Johnson smiled. “I think it’s a good competitive spirit and it will continue,” he said.
Saturday’s game took five hours and 29 minutes. The Nationals won. But they’ve lost 11 of 15 to the Braves and remain 14½ games back in the division. It’s too late to save face for the season. But there’s still time left for one more sandbox fight on Sunday.