The Washington Nationals were finally able to break through against the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday, a team they had not beaten since Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS. Saturday was a tad different, as the Nationals chipped away and battled back, like they have in most of their contests, but were unable to get over the hump and lost, 4-3. Something that will not majorly overshadow this series is manager Matt Williams benching his left fielder in Bryce Harper, whom Williams felt did not hustle on a ground out in the sixth inning.
As we know, Harper has been nursing quad tightness, which may or may not still be afflicting him. However, it is probably safe to say that Williams benching Harper for not hustling implies his quad is not bothering him, because if it was, Williams would have said as much. Williams has said many times he wants an aggressive team that hustles and comes ready to play every day, and wants to encourage Harper’s playing style rather than suppress it. Williams has alluded to wanting to promote a happy medium with Harper. This means that Williams wants Harper to be aggressive, but also be smart about this aggression.
So, based on Williams saying how he wants a team that plays hard and pushes the envelope, adding pressure to the other team to make a play, it makes perfect sense for Harper to be benched if he does not hustle. Also, Harper is a guy who constantly has talked about hustling as a means of respecting the game and those who have come before him. Last year, when Harper crashed into the wall in Los Angeles, he tweeted out how he would never stop playing hard and ended the tweet with the hashtag “respect the game.” When a player of Harper’s caliber talks about playing hard every day until it kills him, he should be benched if he doesn’t hustle.
Think about it, hustle has been a calling card of Harper since he was drafted by Washington. He drew comparisons to Mickey Mantle and Pete Rose, never taking plays off. His first at-bat against the Los Angeles Dodgers, which was a ground out, was interesting because Harper ran hard all the way through first even though the ball barely went 10 feet. When a player does something like that, then they do not hustle on a similar play, it makes sense for that player to be benched.
Of course, there is the counter argument to this that Harper did not hustle once, so why bench him after one incident? The answer to that is incredibly simplistic: one incident could quickly turn into a week’s worth of incidents, and then Harper’s hustle and attitude comes into major question. Remember, Williams does not have the quiet cache that Davey Johnson had. Williams comes from a coaching staff in Arizona who expected their players to hustle and play hard every day, and if they didn’t, well then they did not belong on that team.
Remember, Harper has painted himself into a corner in many ways when it comes to attitude and playing style. He believes in playing hard every day and respecting the game through that hard work and hustle. So if Harper takes a play off, it is going to be magnified intensely, as well as add to the idea that Harper is overrated. When a player like Harper says what he says about hustle, and is on a team with a first-year, no-nonsense manager, a benching is bound to happen if he takes plays off. So, benching him makes a lot of sense, and could work out pretty well for Washington.