PITTSBURGH - As he slid awkwardly into third base, jamming his left thumb in the process, Bryce Harper immediately thought the worst.
He tore the ligament in that same thumb on a similar play two years ago, and if he had just done it again, Harper knew that was the end of his season. No playoffs in 2016. All because of a fake tag by Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang, who never even had the ball on the key third-inning play during what wound up a 10-7 Nationals victory at PNC Park.
“The first thought in my head was I tore my UCL again,” Harper said. “In that moment, I kind of wanted to punch the guy, because you don’t want that to happen. Good thing that didn’t happen.”
Harper was able to shrug it all off a bit afterward, because he quickly realized the pain he felt was in a different part of his thumb. The Nationals, for now, are saying his status is day-to-day, but they’ll know more after an X-ray planned for Monday once the team returns home.
As for the play that led to the injury, not to mention a retaliatory pitch at Kang and a benches-clearing scuffle ... the Nationals were careful not to say anything that might get somebody in trouble, but they didn’t hide their dissatisfaction with the manner in which Kang deked Harper.
“Part of the game, but it’s something I don’t want to see,” Harper said. “I think a lot of guys don’t want to see it, as well. In that moment, had some things going through my head. I just think it’s not good for the game, not part of the game. But it’s over, it happened, and luckily it’s not too bad.”
Kang, speaking to reporters in the Pirates clubhouse via interpreter H.K. Kim, insisted his intentions were pure.
“I meant no harm,” he said. “During a relay play, I try to hold the runner on third base. That’s all I tried to do.”
The Nationals weren’t buying it.
“I didn’t think that was necessary,” manager Dusty Baker said. “Either there’s a play or there isn’t. Most times when you deke a guy, he doesn’t know where the ball is, and there’s going to be a throw to you. That ball damn near hit the tarp over there.”
Given their clear displeasure with the play, retaliation seemed a foregone conclusion. A.J. Cole’s first-pitch fastball to Kang in the bottom of the inning wound up sailing behind his back, and that didn’t sit well with the Pirates dugout.
Sean Rodriguez, who was in the on-deck circle at the time, walked toward the plate and told catcher Jose Lobaton: “That was dirty.”
Jayson Werth and Oliver Perez, meanwhile, hopped out of the Nationals dugout and started jawing at Rodriguez. Within seconds, both benches and bullpens had emptied, though only a minor skirmish developed before the two sides were separated.
“I guess, in essence, there is a baseball sense in that where you basically try to get back at somebody,” Rodriguez told reporters. “Typically, the unwritten rule would be: Below the shoulders (is) fine. You can throw at my knees, throw at my thighs, you can hit me in the back. If you feel confident you can dot me up and not miss, fine. But you can watch the replay yourself. The ball went behind his head. All bets are off.
“We’re talking about somebody’s livelihood now. Even from back way before any of us played, even before Dusty played, that was something that was frowned upon. That’s part of the game you don’t want to see happen. It’s hard to control emotions at that point because ... getting hit in the head, anything can happen. You don’t do it.”
Cole, who was ejected by plate umpire Jordan Baker, tried to claim the pitch wasn’t retaliatory. To admit otherwise would only subject himself to a worse suspension than he’s already guaranteed to be dealt by Major League Baseball.
“The scouting report, you’ve got to up and in, around the hands, that’s where I was trying to go,” he said. “You have to get in tight on him. If you leave it out over the plate, he’s going to hit it. He’s got, what, 20 home runs now? You’ve got to get it in there, you can’t just leave it over the plate. And that’s where I was trying to go.”
Rodriguez was the only other player ejected. Kang played the rest of the game and wound up hitting a two-run homer off Koda Glover that gave the Pirates a 7-5 lead in the seventh. The Nationals responded with a five-run rally in the eighth, highlighted by Werth’s pinch-hit homer off former teammate Felipe Rivero, catapulting themselves to a victory that inspired their injured right fielder.
“I loved it,” Harper said. “I know my team has my back in any given situation: J-Dub, Oliver Perez, our whole dugout. To be able to see the team that we are, the family we are, just makes you want to grind it out every single day for this club and this organization. Being able to come back, and J-Dub hit that two-run shot, that’s huge for us.”