The big topic of discussion in the press box during tonight’s 7-4 Nationals win was White Sox manager Robin Ventura’s decision to intentionally walk Bryce Harper with two outs and Ryan Zimmerman on deck in the fifth inning.
Harper, while he’s on fire and possesses a world of talent, has played just 148 games in his big league career. Zimmerman has a proven track record, having performed at a high level over nine major league seasons.
We’re just nine games into the season. You don’t often see one middle-of-the-order hitter intentionally walked to get to another middle-of-the-order hitter this early in the year when guys haven’t really established much just yet.
The White Sox pitcher on the mound, Dylan Axelrod, had struggled all night and was having trouble getting everyone out - both left-handed and right-handed hitters. Putting another runner on base only gave the Nats more of a chance at a big inning.
On the other hand, first base was open, and by walking Harper, Ventura was giving the right-handed Axelrod a chance to face a right-handed hitter instead of the left-handed-hitting Harper. In his previous at-bat, Harper had also stroked an RBI single to right.
It’s an incredibly tough call either way. That’s the trouble this Nats lineup gives opposing managers and pitchers.
Asked about the decision after the game, Ventura indicated that it was less about the righty/righty matchup and more just about getting the bat out of Harper’s hands.
“I think Harper is hot,” Ventura said. “The swings he was having earlier off of (Axelrod), you are just rolling the dice either way. You just take your chance.”
For his part, Zimmerman said he wasn’t surprised to see Ventura call for the intentional walk of Harper.
“If I’m the manager I’d rather pitch a righty against a righty instead of a lefty,” he said. “But obviously Bryce, you don’t want to pitch to Bryce right now. But lefty/righty, it’s harder supposedly for righties to hit off righties. I think it was just more of a match-up thing. I wouldn’t pitch a righty against Bryce right now either.”
Harper viewed the intentional pass as a sign of respect from Chicago’s young manager.
“Absolutely,” Harper said. “That’s a great pitching staff over there. Great bullpen. They could have easily brought in (left-hander Hector) Santiago to face me. ... But he threw a good game tonight. And every single guy they got is pretty good.”
Zimmerman fell behind in the count, 1-2, before taking a slider and a two-seam fastball for balls to run the count full. He then got a slider from Axelrod and put the good part of the bat to it.
“Axelrod’s one of those guys who will throw anything at any time,” Zimmerman said. “Sometimes those are the toughest pitchers to face. All night he was mixing it up, keeping it off-speed, heaters in, off-speed away, all over the place. You just kind of look fastball away and adjust.”
Adjust he did, smacking a ball to right, which plated two runs, and leading the Nats to their third straight win over Ventura’s White Sox.