Angels outfielder strikes out four times vs. Tigers; Nats outfielder pulled from game
By Marty Noble
NEW YORK -- Months before each won the Rookie of the Year Award in his league in 2012, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper were linked, though merely for forever. As a multitalented outfielder in steep ascent, each had made a mark in the game before Labor Day that year. They became as much a tandem as Spahn and Sain, Mantle and Maris or those other baseball brothers, Abbott and Costello.
And now, Messrs. Trout and Harper have been linked in another way, one that is neither so endearing nor so positive as most of what had connected them through two seasons: Each had his worst day as a big league player on Saturday.
Trout, widely regarded as the best player in the game these days and the Angel of Southern California, was fitted for a golden sombrero Saturday after he had struck out four times against Tigers starter Max Scherzer and closer Joe Nathan. And, worse, Harper was unceremoniously yanked from the lineup by first-year Nationals manager Matt Williams for not hustling. Call it a National disgrace.
In neither case will the stain on the player's image be permanent. In each case, the lack -- contact in Trout's circumstance, effort in Harper's -- stands alone as a transgression in the player's resume. Trout and Harper have been good baseball citizens and performers, and a repeat is unlikely in each situation any time soon.
Golden sombrero games 2014
Four-strikeout games this season (Elias Sports Bureau)
Harper's jog toward first base -- he never came close to reaching what should have been his destination -- in the sixth inning against the Cardinals was quite uncharacteristic and, hence, a higher-profile incident. The ripples it created reached the shores of Flushing Bay before dark Saturday; Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said Sunday morning that he and bench coach Carlos Tosca had discussed Williams' discipline when Harper's spot in the batting order had come around in the ninth inning and Harper's replacement, Kevin Frandsen, batted with runners on second and third and one out. Frandsen drove in a run with a groundout, and the Nationals lost by one run.
"Good for Matt," Gonzalez said twice. It was an unqualified endorsement. Harper had put his manager in an almost untenable position -- the Nationals' best player had wordlessly, and probably unintentionally -- challenged his manager's recently reinforced directive, leaving him no alternative but discipline. Even if it meant removing his team's best hitter. The lineup card is the manager's ultimate tool.
"He did what had to be done," Gonzalez said. "It wasn't easy to do. He didn't want to embarrass [Harper]. But what choice did he have?"
Gonzalez recalled a similar experience when he managed the Marlins. Hanley Ramirez had inadvertently kicked the ball after a popup had fallen untouched in short left field; he slowly pursued it.
Ramirez was yanked, too. And, as Gonzalez was happy to point out Sunday, the shortstop never was a repeat offender defender.
"You've got 24 other guys to think of in a situation like that," Gonzalez said. "I guess they'd had a meeting about [hustling]. I don't know for sure, but I can almost guarantee this wasn't the first one."
Mets manager Terry Collins endorsed Williams' handling of the situation as well, even if the Nationals manager's motivation had been to underscore his own authority. "You can't let that go," Collins said. And Collins noted irony in Harper's case in that last season the Nationals publicly urged their left fielder to ease up, lest he injure himself with reckless play.
As it was, Harper had missed time last week because of a tight left quad, though he acknowledged Saturday his leg was not an issue.
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Opposing managers routinely hail any one of their brethren who takes a public stand against lackadaisical play or poor behavior. Bud Harrelson, then the Mets manager, saluted Jim Leyland in Spring Training 1991 when the then-Pirates manager ordered the grumbling Barry Bonds to zip it. And of course, Billy Martin was supported by some of his peers in 1977 for his mid-inning removal of Reggie Jackson from right field in a nationally televised game in Boston. Martin thought Jackson had jaked it on a shallow fly ball.
The reaction of Sparky Anderson to Jackson's play was, "With my club, I wouldn't have to say a thing. My [players] would let him know." No question.
And Braves players from the late 1990s still recall vividly Bobby Cox yanking Andruw Jones and excoriating him on the bench for lackadaisical play in center field. Cox said he had learned from Ralph Houk to "nip it in the bud."
And in 1960, Washington Senators manager Cookie Lavagetto publicly supported Casey Stengel after the Yankees manager had removed Mickey Mantle from an August game against his team. In circumstances similar to Harper's, Mantle jogged toward first base on what became a ground-ball double play. Mantle later said he thought he had batted with two outs. Stengel said, "Either way, he's wrong."
Lavagetto was impressed; his footnote was, "Casey benched his MVP."
Mantle made amends the following night, hitting two two-run home runs in a 4-3 victory against the Orioles, the second coming in the eighth inning after catcher Clint Courtney, wearing the oversized mitt Orioles catchers used when knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm was pitching, dropped a third-out foul pop.
FYI: Harper produced one hit and walked once in the Nationals' victory against the Cardinals on Sunday.
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Another thought about Trout's sombrero: How poorly would a player regarded as the best in another sport -- say Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky -- have to perform to produce a game comparable to Trout's four strikeouts in four at-bats?
If the best player in the game -- he's pretty fair hitter, too -- can go down four times in one nine-inning game, it must be a pretty tough game to play.
FYI: Trout's sombrero was one of 18 this season through Saturday, and one of 172 since the beginning of last season.
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And finally, there is this piece of fantasy from Gonzalez regarding Harper and Williams' reaction to his lack of hustle: "Do you think they'll trade him?"
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.