Helmet thrown, ligament torn: It was a bad day for baseball's biggest stars
- Mike Trout got some bad news, while Bryce Harper delivered some bad blows. Now, both will miss some time.
Mike Trout and Bryce Harper may not have been separated at birth, but the leading candidates for the MVP awards in their respective leagues made headlines on Memorial Day, albeit for reasons they would rather forget and ones that will keep their talents under wraps for a spell. Trout, off to the best start of his career at the plate, has landed on the disabled list for the first time due to a torn ligament in his left thumb that will require surgery, and recovery timetable of six to eight weeks. Harper, who's been in a groove reminiscent of his 2015 NL MVP-winning dominance, charged the mound after being drilled—quite possibly with intent—by Giants reliever Hunter Strickland, setting off a brawl whose roots date to the 2014 Division Series.
The Giants beat the Nationals in that series, but not before Harper sent two poorly-placed Strickland fastballs into orbit via towering home runs that the pitcher apparently felt he admired for too long, one in Game 1 at Nationals Park (445 feet) and the other in Game 4 at AT&T Park (377 feet). Washington ended up losing both games and the series, while the Giants marched to their third championship in five years. The pair hadn't faced each other since, and when Strickland drilled Harper in the left hip with a 98-mph heater on the first pitch, the slugger took issue. He tossed his bat away, then approached the mound and appeared ready to fire his batting helmet at the pitcher. He wound up flinging it several feet away, but each player threw punches and landed one to the face, with Strickland striking first but nearly getting toppled in the melée.
As the Bay Area News Group's Andrew Baggarly scored it, Strickland landed an open-handed slap, while Harper’s close-handed strike got Strickland's hat bill, so this wasn't the Thrilla in Manila or even the second coming of Bautista-Odor. Still, it's worth noting that that catcher Buster Posey made no attempt to protect his pitcher by interceding, suggesting that he didn't condone the action, which—though Strickland stuck to the script afterwards by saying he tried to "go inside and obviously, I got it in a little too far"—was interpreted as intentional by both managers. Washington's Dusty Baker said afterward "It looked like it was intentional to me. What's a man supposed to do?" while Giants manager Bruce Bochy said, "It looked bad, it does, no question about that," with NBC Sports Bay Area's Alex Pavlovic adding that Bochy "has talked to Strickland about [the] situation and timing."
Meanwhile, Harper's wild helmet throw was the stuff of laughs, though it may have been the 24-year-old slugger creating a diversion or thinking better of weaponizing his headgear even while seeing red. Also skirting the line between entertainment and injury was the head-on collision between the Giants' Jeff Samardzija and Michael Morse:
Finally, note that in the fray, somebody very easily could have rolled onto Strickland's leg and injured his knee, which would have been an even dumber way out of the already-stupid corner into which he painted himself. Posey's defense for not interceding was along similar lines: "Those are some big guys tumbling on the ground. You see Michael Morse, as big as he is, and he's getting knocked around like a pinball."
Said Harper of the drilling, "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 [Strickland] 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."
Both players will probably face suspensions, with Strickland, who’s carrying a 1.53 ERA but has allowed five of 12 inherited runners to score, likely to get the longer one as the instigator and the one with less day-to-day impact. I'd guess six to eight games for him and three or four for Harper, who's hitting .331/.443/.663 with a league-high 15 homers and began the day ranked third in the NL in WAR (2.6) and second in OPS+ (191).
As for Trout, he left Sunday's game against the Marlins in the sixth inning after spraining his left thumb while sliding headfirst. An MRI taken on Monday morning revealed that he tore the ulnar collateral ligament of his thumb (not to be confused with the UCL of his elbow, the ligament repaired in Tommy John surgery) and he was placed on the disabled list for the first time in his seven-year career.
He will undergo surgery on Wednesday and the prognosis after the procedure is a return in six to eight weeks. Trout's teammate Andrelton Simmons missed five weeks after undergoing the surgery last season, benefiting from a medical innovation called an internal brace. Harper tore the UCL of his left thumb sliding headfirst in 2014 and missed two months.
The shame of it is the dent it will put in Trout's most impressive offensive performance to date. The 25-year-old slugger is hitting .337/.461/.742, leading the league in the latter two categories (both career highs) as well as OPS+ (228), home runs (16) and WAR (3.5) despite missing six games earlier this month with a tight left hamstring. He was on track for his third 10-WAR season, something only Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Barry Bonds have done in the integration era (1947 onward), and for a career-high 49 homers.
Trout could still wind up winning his third AL MVP award. George Brett won in 1980, the year he hit .390/.454/.664, even though injuries limited him to 117 games, and Bonds, Barry Larkin, Josh Hamilton, Rickey Henderson, Juan Gonzalez, Joe Mauer and Mo Vaughn have won since then despite playing between 130 and 140 games in non-strike seasons.