Dave Nichols: Strasburg shows backbone standing up for Harper

It was a wild weekend in Atlanta. Not so much for the actual baseball content, as the Nationals dropped another series to the Braves, setting their season record against the division leaders at 4-12. Rather, after Bryce Harper was hit by pitches twice Friday night, the Nationals - at least their top starting pitcher - decided enough was enough.

Harper, a player who will forevermore wear a target on his back with the Braves, was hit twice Friday night by two different pitchers, the second time drawing a standing ovation from the Atlanta crowd for the left-handed reliever who delivered the pitch. This was, of course, after getting hit last week for admiring a home run a little too long in the eyes of the Braves. On Saturday, Nats starter Stephen Strasburg took matters into his own hands to stand up for his teammate, plunking Justin Upton on the behind one pitch after serving up a home run to the Jason Heyward to lead off the game.

As you may recall, Upton was the one that started all the nonsense. In the series back in D.C. last week, he homered off Tyler Clippard in the eighth inning to give the Braves a late lead and took an inordinate amount of time to round the bases. The next night, Harper took his own sweet time admiring his blast, drawing the ire of Braves starter Julio Teheran, who plunked Harper in his next at-bat. The benches cleared, though Harper wasn’t interested in charging the mound. But he did have a few choice comments for Teheran as he took his base.

Cut to Friday night, when Harper was hit by Braves rookie left-hander Alex Wood with a knuckle-curve on the first pitch of his second at-bat, then later in the game by lefty reliever Luis Avilan with a base open in a one-run game. Avilan was lifted following the second assault, and was given a hero’s salute by the 35,000-plus in attendance at Turner Field, stirring up all kinds of bad blood between these two teams - as if there needed to be any more.

It’s no secret the Braves are interested in throwing inside against Harper, especially their left-handed pitchers. And it appears they really don’t care if the lefties allow pitches to drift even further inside. But there has to be responsibility taken when one player is hit on multiple occasions purposeful or not.

Strasburg stood up for Harper on Saturday night, something that’s been a rarity in these parts over the past few seasons. Most managers will tell you they’d rather their team settle things on the scoreboard following these types of incidents, and Davey Johnson is no different. But there comes a point for team morale that something has to be done. It’s been part of baseball culture for over a century, and it’s more than just an eye for an eye.

This season, the Nats have been beaten up by the Braves. It’s just that simple. They’re three games under .500 for the season and eight games under .500 against the Braves. It hasn’t been a fair fight. And the Nats have taken it quietly, up until Saturday night. They just don’t have much by the way of confrontational personalities on the team. It’s a lead-by-example bunch for the most part. That’s great for clubhouse camaraderie - you want a quiet clubhouse, where guys can go about their work without personalities getting in the way.

But sometimes, when your team is down or getting picked on, you need a guy with a little sandpaper, as they call it in ice hockey. You need that guy that will stand up for a teammate when he’s been aggrieved. Baseball history is full of players that didn’t mind setting the tone, owning the inside corner, and sometimes straying a little closer inside. Sometimes you have to show a little backbone.

Strasburg showed that backbone Saturday night. It might be a little thing, but it also might be Strasburg finally starting to come into his own as a leader on this team. As reticent, and sometimes surly, as he is with the media, precious little of that has shown up on the mound thus far in his career. Strasburg has mostly tried to just take care of his own business and let the chips fall where they may. But Saturday’s thumping of Upton was a step in his maturation process as a young pitcher - and as a leader.

Dave Nichols is editor-in-chief of District Sports Page and co-hosts the “Nats Nightly” Internet radio show. Read Nichols’ Nationals observations as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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