With balanced Nats bats, walk-a-Bryce strategy is risky business

WASHINGTON — For the Washington Nationals, the fact that opposing pitchers are starting to intentionally walk Bryce Harper again is good news. The fact that his teammates are making them pay is even better news.

In the second inning of Washington’s 8-1 rout over the Mets, Harper came up with two outs and a runner on second and received an intentional pass from New York starter Rafael Montero. The next batter, Anthony Rendon, blasted a 421-foot, three-run homer over the left-field wall that gave the Nats a 6-1 lead and all but ended the game. The sequence represents a welcome change for the Nats on two fronts.

For starters, teams are once again proceeding with caution when Harper is in the batter’s box. Last year, the reigning MVP led the majors with 17 intentional walks. Through the first two months of this season, he had 12 IBBs, including four during a four-game series with the Cubs in which they walked him a total of 13 times. But following the Chicago series, with Harper mired in a deep funk that may or may not have been induced by the Cubs’ unwillingness to give him anything to hit, teams stopped blatantly avoiding him. In fact, from July 10 to Sept. 6, a span of nearly two months, the Nats slugger didn’t receive a single intentional walk. But over the past week, Harper has been purposely passed twice, and with good reason: Since returning from a neck injury on Aug. 14, the reigning MVP is slashing .307/.413/.535, with 24 RBIs in 28 games.

“It’s just making a bigger deal out of it than it is,” said Justin Turner, who had a sixth-inning single off Sabathia and went 1-for-4. “We know there are lefties in our division and we have to win games. Just to sit around and talk about it all the time isn’t a solution to fix anything, so hopefully we don’t have to spend too much time talking about it.”

This even-keel temperament wasn’t always a calling card for Upton, who exited Monday’s game with a left calf strain but will potentially return to the lineup Tuesday night. Even recently, there have been reminders of his fiery tendencies (i.e. the eminently Gif’able time he spiked his helmet and inadvertently hit San Diego Padres teammate Yonder Alonso last season). Maintaining control over his emotions has been something he has had to consciously work at, especially since his younger days when, he admitted, “I was a bit of a firecracker.”

“Early in my career, I wore my emotions on my sleeve and I had to learn from that,” Upton said prior to Monday’s game. “It was too much. I had to learn how to be more even-keel and, as these guys have seen, I’ve gotten as pissed off as anybody this year, but I try not to treat my teammates any differently.”