[Updated 5:15 p.m.]
Just 18 games into the Nationals' 2014 season, rookie manager Matt Williams has made his first big statement as skipper.
Bryce Harper was benched before the beginning of the seventh inning in the Nationals' loss to the Cardinals on Saturday afternoon. Williams said it was because he failed to hustle out a groundball while running to first.
Though Harper has been dealing with quad tightness, Williams said the decision had nothing to do with his injury.
"No, lack of hustle. That's why he came out of the game," Williams clarified. "The inability to run 90 feet."
"We made an agreement. He and I made an agreement, this team made an agreement, that when you play the game that we hustle at all times, that we play the game with intensity and a willingness to win."
The play happened in the bottom of the sixth inning on a groundout to pitcher Lance Lynn. Harper hit a slow grounder to Lynn, and slowly jogged to first before turning towards the dugout as first baseman Matt Adams caught the throw.
Harper spoke shortly with media after the game and said he understood Williams' decision.
"I respect what he did, it's part of the game."
Williams explained the move further with a reference to the newly enforced 'transfer rule.' This year players have to not only make a catch, but transfer the ball successfully before throwing it to secure an out.
"He's an exciting player, people pay money to watch him play and watch him play the way he can play," Williams said. "But, there's another side to it.
"The other side is that, regardless of how the ball comes off the bat, or regardless of how he's feeling about an at-bat, he must maintain that intensity and that aggressiveness. That means running all the way to first base and touching first base. There's a million reasons why. The transfer rules that we've seen lately, what if that guy bobbles the ball as he's throwing it around? If he doesn't touch the base, he's out. If he veers to the dugout, he's automatically out. Beyond all the 'just run 90 feet stuff,' there's a real, tangible rule behind it now. We must do that. He understands that."
Kevin Frandsen replaced Harper in left field to begin the seventh inning. Frandsen later drove in a run in the top of the ninth in Harper's spot in the lineup.
If Harper was up, however, it's easy to wonder if the Nationals could have scored more. Frandsen brought one run home on a fielder's choice with two runners in scoring position and one out. Jayson Werth then struck out and the Nats lost 4-3.
Williams noted that scenario afterwards.
"As it turned out, his spot came up, Kevin Frandsen put together a nice AB with [Trevor] Rosenthal, but his spot came up with the ability to win the game. That's a shame for his teammates."
Harper lamented not getting the chance to help his team win the game.
"Man, that's tough to watch. Being able to be up there in that situation is something that I thrive on, that I want to be in. It's just in the past and there's nothing we can do about it now."
Williams said the incident will be forgotten on Sunday when the Nationals close their series with St. Louis.
"Of course. He's going to be in the lineup tomorrow. But we made that agreement."
Williams benching Harper certainly sends a message to the Nationals' clubhouse, that no one individual is above the team. Veterans Jayson Werth and Jordan Zimmermann shared their thoughts on the move after the loss.
"I've played on teams where if you don't hustle, you get taken out of the game. It's pretty standard," Werth said. "I think that's part of the game. You show up here, you be on time, you hustle. Not a lot is asked of us."
"That's up to Matt," Zimmermann said. "I don't have much to say on that. I'm going to try to stay out of it, but I hopefully he learns, I guess."