Before the Cubs’ game Sunday, I asked manager Joe Maddon if he would be able to enjoy Jake Arrieta’s battles against the Nationals’ Bryce Harper that afternoon. Enjoy it the way a fan would enjoy watching the reigning National League Cy Young award winner face the reigning N.L. most valuable player.
“I don’t do that,’’ he said. “I work the game. I do the game. I’m just about watching the game and trying to understand what’s happening. I don’t necessarily really check this matchup out and hold it in awe. I don’t do that.’’
We now have indisputable proof that Maddon wasn’t kidding. Cubs pitchers walked Harper six times and hit him once Sunday. Three of those walks were intentional. Maddon looked like a genius after the Cubs’ 4-3, 13-inning victory. Ryan Zimmerman, who batted immediately after Harper in the Nationals’ lineup, left 14 men on base. You could raise a barn with that many people.
The Cubs and their fans don’t care how the team gets its victories, nor should they. It’s Maddon’s job to figure out the best way to win. In this case, he believed it involved taking the bat out of Harper’s hands.
But from an entertainment standpoint, it was frustrating, like going to a movie and finding out that all of Daniel Day-Lewis’ scenes had been left on the cutting-room floor. I wanted to watch Arrieta challenge Harper at least once. Hand-to-hand combat instead of chess. Competitors competing. The decision to pitch around or intentionally walk Harper came well before Arrieta took the mound Sunday and struggled. Three of Harper’s walks came from Arrieta, one intentionally.
The strategy behind the three intentional walks, and the success of it, is the kind of thing that gives stats freaks hot, sweaty dreams. I get that. It was the right decision, but it left the baseball fan in me feeling a little empty, a little cheated.
The two teams meet again in Washington next month. Maybe Arrieta will get to throw strikes to Harper, who might even have to swing.