Harper returned last week after missing 42 games due to a hyperextended knee and strained calf. Baker decided to ease Harper back in the lineup by placing him in the No. 2 spot because he wasn’t going to play nine innings. He was looking to get the right fielder as many at-bats in the shortest amount of time. Those increased opportunities in the batter’s box, Baker reasoned, would be more prevalent at the top of the order.
That decision also revealed a new strategy that the Nats did not employ earlier in the season because Trea Turner and Harper weren’t always available at the same time. Turner and Harper have high on-base percentages this season: .338 and .413, respectively. The last couple of weeks, that formula created some unique chances with runners on base for the rest of the order.
For instance, with Turner on second base and Harper on first base, Turner would go for the steal of third base. This drew the attention of the catcher, and he would fire to third base. Turner was safe and Harper would wait a half-second and then take off for second base. Because the throw went to third, Harper easily jogged into second base standing up for the double steal.
The Nats pulled off the double steal twice in that scenario with Turner and Harper at the top of the order. If they employ that same strategy tonight and during the NLDS, they will have golden opportunities for Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman.
Manager Dusty Baker believes batting Harper second tonight serves a different purpose than was his intention last week.
“Bryce batting second, perhaps he’ll get fastballs with Trea getting on base, which is important, and we know that Bryce isn’t back 100 percent timing-wise,” Baker said. “So you want to not have him in those key RBI situations right now. By next week or end of this five-game series, we might do something different.”
As for the big-picture makeup of the lineup for Game 1, here is the batting order.
Baker said the 3-4-5 alignment made sense because he hopes it will bring out the best in each of those hitters for different reasons.
“Right now, Rendon, he’s been swinging very well,” Baker said. “Murph responds in the fourth spot. Zim has responded four or five, and then a couple of the key men are going to be at the bottom of the order. It depends on how Jay (Jayson Werth), (Matt) Wieters and Michael Taylor - so those guys are very, very important in the bottom of the order to turn the lineup over.”
It is also a lineup with a lot of postseason experience. Obviously, the Cubs have a ton of experience with the World Series title from last season, as well as playoff work in 2015. But the Nats have guys like Murphy (2015) and Werth (2008, 2009), who have gone to the World Series in the last 10 years, and the rest of the crew that have had recent postseason experience.
“Well, I think that’s invaluable when you have that experience, because you kind of know what to look for,” Baker said. “I mean, this is a series where both teams have guys that have been in postseason experience the last couple years. I think it’s very valuable because you’re not surprised and you’re not overwhelmed. You know the importance of every game, every pitch, every play.”