The Chicago Cubs swept the Washington Nationals in four straight games over the weekend … but you already knew that.
And, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know a great deal of the credit for Sunday’s win (and the whole series, really) can be given to Joe Maddon and the strategy he and the Cubs pitchers (successfully) employed against Bryce Harper.
Over the course of the four game series, Harper received the “Bonds Treatment”, as he walked a grand total of thirteen times, four of which were intentional. A large percentage of those walks came on Sunday (six total, three intentional), and the Nationals were not too pleased with that strategy. (Why would they be? It helped them lose!)
After the series, Nationals starting pitcher Tanner Roark labeled the Cubs and their strategy “scared baseball,” telling the Washington Post, “Most of the time you have faith in your pitchers to challenge a guy, but apparently not. I don’t know. I’d rather pitch to somebody who is the best, the reigning NL MVP, and feel good about myself.”
So was it scared baseball? Cubs Manager Joe Maddon doesn’t seem to think so and has nothing to say about the “scared baseball” accusations.
“There’s really nothing to react to,” Maddon told reporters on Monday afternoon, via ESPN Chicago, “If you’re a Cubs fan, you love it. If you’re not, you don’t, necessarily.”
And isn’t that really the crux of this argument? Of course the Nationals, Tanner Roark and Dusty Baker aren’t thrilled with this strategy, as it was a big part of the reason they lost in four straight games. But don’t blame the Cubs if you can’t do much with thirteen walks over four games from one player. That’s a heck of a lot of baserunners and a pretty big hole out of which Cubs pitchers constantly had to pitch themselves.
“It was a strategy in the game based on how they built their group,” Maddon said, via the Chicago Tribune. “That’s all it came down to. It’s nothing I did.” Maddon later added that he was simply playing his team’s strengths against theirs and how can you possibly fault him for that? It’s not as though there was not significant risk involved (indeed, they loaded the bases on more than one occasion (sometimes in extra innings!) with an intentional walk of Bryce Harper).
Scared? No. That’s closer to brave than scared.
Taking it a step further, it’s not as though there was nothing for the Nationals to do. Right now, hitting behind Harper, you’ll find the offensively struggling Ryan Zimmerman (.227/.283/.327), instead of the scorching hot Daniel Murphy (.398/.441/.661).
On Sunday alone, Zimmerman stranded an MLB record 14 runners on the bases, but Dusty Baker said that no lineup change was forthcoming. “A few days doesn’t merit you switching it up,” Baker said to Jamal Collier at MLB.com. “If [Zimmerman] had gotten one hit in one of those times, you’d never even ask me this today.”
I actually agree with that assessment, but I believe it just provides more support for the Cubs’ strategy. Zimmerman has been cold and Bryce Harper is Bryce Harper. In the end it all boils down to Joe Maddon’s now-famous saying: Try not to suck. If Zimmerman had been hot and made the Cubs pay for their strategy, the Nationals would have had no problem with it. They wouldn’t be calling it “scared baseball,” they’d be calling it “stupid baseball.”
As it turns out, other teams are already adopting the Cubs’ strategy against Harper and it’s working. In last night’s tumultuous win over the Tigers, the Tigers intentionally walked Harper in the 7th inning of a tie game with runners on first and third. After loading the bases intentionally for Zimmerman, he popped out to end the inning.
Scared or smart, I prefer when the Cubs win any way they can.