Harper plunked again, but Nats stay civil in loss
ATLANTA — The curveball came in from Ian Krol at 77 mph, hanging right over the plate. And it departed via Justin Upton's bat with far more velocity, clearing the fence in left-center and leaving the Braves mobbing their star slugger at the plate while the Nationals trudged away having suffered yet another disheartening loss to this Atlanta club.
The scene inside the Nationals' clubhouse minutes later was even more disheartening. Amid dead-silence, Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond sat side-by-side at their lockers, staring into nothingness. Krol and Taylor Jordan, fellow rookies on a veteran-laden roster, showered and dressed and tried to figure out what to say when asked by reporters about this 3-2, 10-inning loss.
And Bryce Harper sat alone, sporting a bandage on his arm after he twice was hit by pitches — the third time he has been plunked by the Braves in the last three meetings between these two teams — before walking out declining to speak to reporters.
Such is the state of affairs right now for a Nationals club that is stuck in baseball purgatory. They're able to beat up on bad teams but getting beaten up by the good ones. Sometimes in the literal sense.
"It's not easy losing, that's for sure," Werth said. "It's kind of been the story of the year so far. We just play good enough to lose."
The particulars of loss No. 62 out of 121 — a solid effort from Jordan, three errors by the infield, a lack of clutch hits from the lineup aside from Werth's game-tying single in the eighth, Krol's game-ending meatball to Upton — seemed less significant than the mental state of a Nationals club that has been downright bullied by the Braves this season.
There are the obvious signs: a 15 1/2-game difference in the standings, an 11-3 head-to-head advantage by Atlanta so far this year. And there are the subtle ones as well: Harper getting plunked three times by Braves pitching in the last 11 days, with the Nationals electing not to retaliate.
"We like to play civilized," Krol said. "We don't like to cheap-shot anybody."
Whether Friday night's plunkings were cheap shots or not is debatable. Left-hander Alex Wood hit Harper with a 77-mph breaking ball in the top of the fourth. Reliever Luis Avilan then nailed him in the upper back with a 91-mph fastball in the eighth inning of what was a 2-1 game at the time.
Asked if he thought the Braves were intentionally throwing at Harper, manager Davey Johnson responded: "I hope not, 'cause it's ridiculous in a close ballgame. And they've got a lot more to lose than we do at this point. So it would be a ridiculous thing to be doing."
Intentional or not, plate umpire Marty Foster did issue warnings to Avilan and both benches after the second hit-by-pitch. Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez immediately walked to the mound and took the ball from Avilan, who received a standing ovation from the Turner Field crowd of 35,663 despite the fact he retired only two of the four batters he faced.
Foster's warning didn't particularly help the Nationals' cause. If they wanted to retaliate, now they faced an automatic ejection for both pitcher and manager.
"After he got hit the second time, he should've thrown him out of the ballgame," Johnson said. "But it's their choice."
The Nationals didn't respond on Friday, just as they didn't 11 days earlier when Harper was plunked by Julio Teheran and had words with the Braves right-hander. But there were some subtle suggestions that payback will take place eventually.
"You know, that's one of those things we take care of in-house," Werth said. "That's just part of the game. I'm not going to speak publicly about it."
There's not much the Nationals can say at this point.
They've been pushed around all season by the Braves. And as much as they want to exact their revenge on the scoreboard and in the standings, that's nothing but wishful thinking right now.
"I mean, they've been pretty good all year," Werth said. "They all sting [losses]. They've played pretty good from start to finish, and we haven't. That's really the story of the season so far."