Remember last year, when Bryce Harper and the first-place Washington Nationals rolled into Wrigley Field to take on Joe Maddon’s first-place Chicago Cubs in a four-game May tilt that had all the makings of an National League Championship Series preview (though it actually wasn’t)? Chicago swept Washington, in large part because Maddon pitched around the 2015 MVP to the tune of 13 walks in the series, including a record-tying six free passes (three intentional) in the finale.
A year later, with the Cubs descending on D.C. for a four-game set starting Monday, Harper — who never seemed quite the same after all those walks and turned in a disappointing 2016 campaign — is back to his old mashing ways. How exactly will Maddon handle him this time around? Baseball writers Jesse Rogers (Cubs) and Eddie Matz (Nats) discuss.
Rogers: Well, Eddie, I’m setting the over/under on Bryce Harper walks for the four-game series at 8.5. Which way are you going?
Matz: Gimme the under all day long, Jesse, if for no other reason than Ryan Zimmerman is back to being, you know, good at hitting. Last year, when Joe Maddon and the Cubs walked Harper 637 times (give or take) during that series at Wrigley, Zimmerman played right into the strategy by going 0-for-637 (give or take) behind him. A year later, Zim is the most dangerous bat in a stacked Nats lineup, not to mention a legit MVP candidate. Not even Maddon is crazy enough to go there.
Rogers: You’re the crazy one then because I’m taking the over. Zimmerman might be a career .262 hitter against the Cubs, but most of that damage was done while they were rebuilding. In 2016, he hit .125 against them. In 2015, he hit .043. Or as you know it, your Little League batting average. The Cubs have space rented inside Zimmerman’s head, and the Cubs have just one lefty in the pen. Walking Harper is still the way to go.
Matz: You wanna walk Harper? By all means, go right ahead. Since the beginning of the 2014 season, dude is hitting just .188 against the Cubs. Then there’s this: Since April 27, a span of almost two months, Harper is batting a pedestrian .254. I’m not saying he isn’t dangerous. What I am saying is that right now, Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon — otherwise known as the three guys who hit behind Harper — are all more dangerous. But like I said, be my guest.
Rogers: You forgot to tell me what he’s hitting on Tuesday nights after he eats cereal for breakfast. Break it down however you want, but I’m not having my righties get beaten by the lefties, especially Harper. Murphy is another one I’d walk. I’d walk all of them but Zimmerman. Let’s see if he can set another record for left-on-base in a four-game series.
Matz: First off, you started the whole numbers thing (and yes, I’m in the third grade). What’s more, although this is a WWJD exercise, the J stands for Joe — not Jesse. I say Maddon is simply too unconventional to do what everyone assumes he’ll do. Last year, he got in Harper’s head by not pitching to him. My money says he goes reverse-reverse psychology this time around and comes right after Harper. Maybe not every single time, but at least enough to wash away the memory of last year’s walk-a-thon.
Rogers: Reverse-reverse psychology? I think it’s you who needs a visit with Dr. Freud, but that’s a whole other story. The bottom line is that until Zimmerman proves he can beat the Cubs, Maddon will challenge him with his best righties instead of letting the lefty Harper beat them. Take that to the bank.
Matz: The only thing I’ll be taking to the bank is the windfall I’m going to get for successfully betting the under here. Pleasure doing business.