Dec 27, 2013, 6:00 AM EDT
As we count down the final days of 2013, we are counting down the 10 most significant moments of the year for the Nationals. These aren’t necessarily positive (or negative) moments, and some didn’t even take place on the field. All, though, were significant in the big picture and defined the Nationals’ year. We continue today with significant moment No. 5: The beanball war that escalated between the Nats and Braves in August…
The Braves owned the Nationals in 2013, there’s no getting around that fact. What was expected to be a compelling race for the NL East crown instead turned into a rout, with Atlanta firmly in control from start to finish and at one point opening up a commanding 15 1/2-game lead on Washington.
Separation in the standings or not, there was legitimate bad blood between the two clubs all season, and those hot tempers boiled during an 11-day stretch in August that left some lasting memories for all involved.
It all began Aug. 6 at Nationals Park, when Bryce Harper — two innings after launching a mammoth home run to center field and perhaps admiring his handiwork a bit too much — was plunked in the hip by Braves starter Julio Teheran. Harper, none too pleased with what appeared to be a purpose pitch from Teheran, took two steps toward the mound and began jawing at the right-hander.
That prompted both teams’ benches and bullpens to empty, and though no actual punches were thrown, the tension between division rivals was all too clear.
Harper later admitted he would have full-on charged the mound and put Teheran “six feet under” if not for the lopsided state of the NL East standings at that point.
“I mean, 14 1/2 games down, and I need to be in the lineup,” the 20-year-old slugger said. “He’s got to do what he’s got to do. And it’s part of the game. If I walk-off on somebody and he wants to drill me, I’ll let him drill me and I’ll stand on first base and say some choice words and get over it.”
No matter how Harper responded, the Nationals figured to retaliate at some point, but it didn’t come that night during yet another frustrating, 2-1 loss, or the next night during a 6-3 loss that left the Braves a perfect 6-0 in D.C. for the season.
The two teams met again at Turner Field the following week, though, and that’s when the beanball war was renewed. Harper was hit twice by Atlanta pitchers during the series opener, including an up-and-in fastball from Luis Avilan that forced him to sit out the next night’s game due to a bruised upper left arm.
When Stephen Strasburg took the mound Aug. 17, tensions remained high. And sure enough, Strasburg plunked Braves slugger Justin Upton in the hip in the bottom of the first inning, exacting some revenge on behalf of his teammates.
Then things really turned bizarre. Strasburg lost all semblance of control the next inning, firing seven consecutive balls, the last two behind Andrelton Simmons’ back. Intentional or not, plate umpire Marvin Hudson (who had issued blanket warnings after the first inning) had no choice but to eject both Strasburg and manager Davey Johnson.
“Just a couple long innings right before there,” Strasburg explained. “Just got a little cold. Just missed some spots. … I can’t really explain it. Just didn’t really feel good out there and couldn’t hit the spot.”
This much was certain: Strasburg’s actions earned him kudos within the clubhouse.
“Whether it got away from him or not, he’s got my respect,” Adam LaRoche said. “I was impressed.”
The beanball war did nothing to help the Nationals dig out of their massive hole in the NL East. The Braves cruised to the title with ease.
But those 11 days in August were significant. We saw how Harper was viewed by the Braves roster. We saw how Strasburg responded to the situation. And we saw the escalation of a division rivalry that figures to remain heated in 2014 and perhaps beyond.
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