Bryce Harper has been nursing a tight left quadriceps muscle all week, leaving Monday and Tuesday nights' games early and sitting out Wednesday's contest entirely. However, he played all nine innings on Thursday and Friday, and his rookie manager, Matt Williams, clearly believed Harper was healthy enough to run out the weak one-hopper he hit back to Cardinals pitcher Lance Lynn leading off the bottom of the sixth inning of Saturday afternoon's tilt, which Washington lost 4-3.
Here's a Vine of the groundout in question via Nationals blog Federal Baseball:
Williams was dissatisfied enough with Harper's effort on that play to pull Harper from the game. When the Nationals took the field in the top of the seventh, Harper was on the bench, and Kevin Frandsen was in his place in left field.
One could very easily argue that asking one of your best hitters to bust it down the line on a play like that despite having recently suffered a minor leg injury is macho nonsense, grit for grit's sake, if you will. After all, it's not as if Harper stood at the plate or walked down the line. He put his head down and, well, okay, he jogged, slowly. Still, exactly how much faster did Williams want him to run? I assume he didn't want him to tear down the line at full speed given the quad injury, so how far from acceptable was Harper's speed?
At the same time, one could argue that if Harper can't run down to first any better than that, maybe he should be resting on the bench rather than taking chances running and fielding on a bad leg with the Nationals already down 3-1 and his turn at bat likely to come up just once more in the game. Of course, Williams didn't try to pretend that Harper was pulled because of concern about his leg.
"No, lack of hustle," Williams said after the game. "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."
Ironically, Williams' decision to bench Harper may have had a far more deleterious impact on the Nats' ability to win on Saturday than Harper's lack of hustle. Harper's spot in the order came back around with with one out in the ninth inning and the tying runs in scoring position. Frandsen grounded out in Harper's place, driving in just one of those two runs, and Jayson Werth followed by striking out to end the game. Williams acknowledged that Harper's absence may have hurt the team in that spot, but kept the onus on the 21-year-old, saying, "That’s a shame for his teammates." This all strikes me as more of an effort on Williams' part to establish his authority 18 games into his managerial career than to send a message to Harper individually. Williams said that Harper will be back in the lineup on Sunday, and Harper said he respected Williams' decision, so this already seems like a non-issue beyond its impact in the ninth inning. I'm certainly not going to claim to know how to better manage the Nationals' clubhouse or Harper than Williams, who is being handsomely paid to do those things and has been in that clubhouse every day since mid-February. Still, Williams, who spent the last four years coaching under Kirk Gibson as part of a Diamondbacks administration that has been criticized for its overemphasis on hustle and grit, has left himself open to similar criticism here, both because of Harper's injury and the impact his disciplinary decision may have had on the outcome of the game.