Will Cubs refuse to pitch to Bryce Harper again this week?

The Cubs are coming to town Monday, and so the question on everybody's mind this week is a simple one: Will they pitch to Bryce Harper?

They most certainly did not last month when the Nationals visited Wrigley Field. Though he stepped up to the plate 19 times in that four-game series, Harper wound up with only four official at-bats. He was walked 13 times, four of them intentional. He tied the major league record with six walks in the series finale, part of a stretch of 12 consecutive plate appearances that did not result in an official at-bat.

Joe Maddon hasn't tipped his hand yet about this week's three-game series at Nationals Park, but there's plenty of reason to believe the unconventional Cubs manager will employ a similar strategy in the rematch.

What does Dusty Baker expect?

Harper-Dugout-Spring-Training-Sidebar.jpg"I don't know," the Nationals manager said before Sunday's series finale. "I haven't really thought about it. I'm thinking about the Phillies now. And then tomorrow I probably still won't think about it. Because thanks to the Cubs, they're the ones that changed my lineup."

Indeed, that series in Chicago did force Baker to rethink his lineup construction. With Ryan Zimmerman slumping mightily at that point, Baker shortly thereafter decided to move Daniel Murphy (who has led the league in hitting all season) up to the cleanup spot to provide better protection for Harper.

Harper has been intentionally walked only three times in 26 games since, Murphy has hit .346 with a .959 OPS and Zimmerman has an .854 OPS in that timeframe.

Harper's production, however, has dropped off dramatically since that infamous series on the North Side. After winning National League Player of the Month honors in April, he hit just .200 with three homers during a 26-game stretch beginning with the opener of the Cubs series. He has gotten himself back on track this week, though, hitting .360 over his last six games.

"That kind of started Bryce's fall at the time," Baker said of Chicago's walk-happy strategy. "It kind of played with his patience, and now he's getting it back. He's swinging better."

There's no questioning the effectiveness of Maddon's plan. The Cubs, owners of baseball's best record, swept that four-game series from a Nationals club that currently owns the NL's second-best record.

Some did question the thinking behind it, though, including Nationals right-hander Tanner Roark, who at the time called it "scared baseball."

As a manager, Baker understands there are times when you simply can't let a star slugger on another team beat you.

"Yeah, I say it all the time," he said. "But I haven't gone to that degree. I remember one time I was in St. Louis and I could've walked Albert Pujols with first base open, but I didn't simply because I was trying to make a young pitcher (Homer Bailey) grow into being a man. At some point in time, there's not going to be a first base open to walk Albert Pujols. So if you want to build a pitcher, you've got to teach him - or he's got to teach himself - how to get out of that jam.

"Cause no matter what, Pujols, he's one of the greatest hitters around. But he's still making an out 65-70 percent of the time. Even if you tell him what's coming. I'll take those odds."

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