SAN FRANCISCO - Baseball grudges are a strange thing. They carry over from year to year, sometimes longer. Events you think would bury the hatchet instead only allow the bad vibes to fester. Everybody in this game remembers everything that happened before.
And so when Bryce Harper stepped to the plate in the top of the eighth this afternoon at AT&T Park, with Hunter Strickland on the mound in what had been a nondescript game that eventually ended a 3-0 Nationals victory over the Giants, those who knew the history perked up just a bit.
Harper, some will recall, launched two home runs off Strickland during the 2014 National League Division Series. The then-22-year-old slugger admired those towering homers and showed plenty of emotion afterward, as might be expected given the magnitude of the moments. And Strickland made clear he didn’t like it.
The two had not met again on a baseball field since. Any time the Nationals and Giants played in 2015 or 2016 and Strickland was on the mound with Harper coming to the plate, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy summoned a left-hander for the matchup.
This time, given the game situation and the Giants’ lack of quality lefties in the pen, Bochy left Strickland in to face Harper with two outs and nobody on. And so when Strickland’s first pitch - a 98-mph fastball - struck Harper square on the right hip, the Nats right fielder had a split-second to decide how to react.
“It looked like it was intentional to me,” said Dusty Baker, who wasn’t yet managing the Nationals in 2014. “What’s a man supposed to do? He’s not a punching bag.”
And so Harper decided to throw a punch and prompt the biggest bench-clearing brawl in club history, one ignited by the memory of what happened three Octobers ago.
“I don’t want to go on a baseball field and try to fight somebody,” Harper said. “Especially when it’s somebody that it’s in the past. It’s so in the past that it’s not even relevant anymore. They won the World Series that year. I don’t even think he should be thinking about what happened in the first round. He should be thinking about wearing that ring home every single night. I don’t know why he did it or what he did it for, but I guess it happens.”
Though it looked bad in live action, upon closer inspection there was only minor contact made between the two parties. Harper threw his helmet in Strickland’s general direction, though he may have made a last-second maneuver to cast it aside and avoid subjecting himself to even more punishment than he already will receive. Strickland threw an open-fist punch that didn’t land with much authority. Harper threw a closed-fist punch that landed on the bill of Strickland’s cap.
Truth be told, the worst collision in the fracas that ensued involved Giants teammates Michael Morse and Jeff Samardzija banging heads at full steam as they tried to break up the fight from opposite directions.
The Nationals pulled Harper out of the mix before anyone else could get to him, with Baker yelling “I know! I know!” and Ryan Zimmerman eventually escorting him off the field. Strickland required three Giants to drag him back to the dugout, still clawing and trying to fight his way back into the fray to the bitter end.
Strickland unconvincingly claimed he was simply trying to pitch Harper inside and missed his intended location, and that past history had nothing to do with today.
“I can see how that kind of stands in peoples’ minds,” he said. “But that’s the past. Like I said, I left the ball over the plate to him a couple of times to him and he’s taken advantage of that. So obviously I’d rather miss in than over the plate.”
The Nationals weren’t buying it.
“Completely uncalled for,” said Daniel Murphy, who joined the Nationals in 2016. “Harper hits one in (McCovey) Cove in a big spot off him, from what I understand. I think I remember seeing it live. And then Hunter waits three years to get him. If the Giants thought it was that egregious, Bryce would’ve gotten one the next season. So he waits three years to get him? Completely uncalled for.”
“Shouldn’t really get a 98-mph fastball in your hip for hitting home runs,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t get to fight the pitcher when he strikes me out twice.”
“I think it’s way too late for that,” pitcher Tanner Roark said. “Maybe the next year. But (Strickland) shouldn’t have thrown those pitches that got hit out. That’s the bottom line. Whatever.”
Harper and Strickland were the only ones ejected from the brawl, with everybody else composing themselves well enough to avoid doing anything stupid. Suspensions are all but guaranteed for both participants. The question is how many games Major League Baseball will require each player to sit, and whether one is made to serve more time than the other.
The fact there were no subsequent incidents after the brawl underscored the isolated nature of it.
“I thought Bryce handled it well,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “You can’t let a guy take a free shot at you throwing (98). The bad thing is, he’ll probably get a couple games out of it, when he actually saved other guys from being thrown out by doing that. It’s what’s crazy about our game when somebody takes a shot at you. I’m hoping he gets way more games than Bryce does.”
Added Baker: “Like I said, what’s a man supposed to do? That clearly wasn’t going inside. That’s throwing at a spot where you can’t get out of the way. If anybody should get suspended, I think it should be their pitcher should get suspended, not our (player). Ours was reacting to being hit.”
If it requires taking some time off one-third of the way through the season, Harper will serve that time and sleep comfortably knowing he did what he felt he had to do, given the situation.
“You never want to get suspended or anything like that, but sometimes you just have to go and get him,” the young star said. “You can’t hesitate. You either go to first base or go after him. I decided to go after him.”