WASHINGTON — Here's the dilemma Chicago White Sox manager Robin Ventura faced Thursday night in the fourth inning of a close game against the Washington Nationals:
Pitch to No. 3 hitter Bryce Harper with a runner on base or walk Harper and pitch instead to cleanup man Ryan Zimmerman with two aboard.
Ventura chose to have right-hander Dylan Axelrod intentionally walk the lefty-swinging Harper. That brought up the right-handed Zimmerman, who delivered a two-run double, breaking the game open and helping the Nationals beat the White Sox 7-4 for a three-game sweep.
"You're rolling the dice either way," Ventura said. "You just take your chance."
Nationals manager Davey Johnson raised an eyebrow and grinned when asked what he thought about that sequence.
"I'm glad," Johnson said, "I don't have to make those decisions."
Zimmerman's modest take?
"I wouldn't pitch a righty against Bryce right now, either," he said.
Ventura's basic, two-word explanation: "Harper's hot."
That's certainly true, and Harper himself wasn't surprised about the walk there, saying, "First base open. Hitting righties pretty good."
Actually, it doesn't seem to matter who's on the mound at the moment.
The reigning NL Rookie of the Year is hitting .417 with four homers, eight RBIs and a .778 slugging percentage. His run-scoring single in the eighth gave the 20-year-old Harper at least two hits in seven of Washington's nine games so far.
"Obviously, they're showing a lot of respect for Bryce, 10 days into the season," Nationals starter Dan Haren (1-0) said after getting the win despite allowing 10 hits in five innings. "I mean, he's special. Our lineup's really good, though. There's no soft spots."
With the score tied at 3 in the fourth, Haren helped himself by doubling off Axelrod (0-1) and eventually scoring on a wild pitch with two outs. Chicago then put Harper on base on purpose, but the move didn't work: Cleanup hitter Zimmerman lined a double to right on Axelrod's 103rd – and final – pitch of the evening.
"I just didn't want to give in. We got to 3-2 and I went with the changeup. I hadn't thrown a changeup to a right-hander all game," Axelrod said, "and it seemed like a good idea at the time."
That put Washington ahead 6-3, and relievers Ryan Mattheus, Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano made it hold up. Soriano pitched the ninth for his fifth save in six chances, and third in three days.
"Well, I was tempted to go another route," Johnson acknowledged afterward about using Soriano again, "but he hadn't cried `Uncle' for me yet."
Washington, 6-0 at home and 7-2 overall, opens a three-game set Friday against visiting NL East rival Atlanta. The Braves are on a six-game winning streak and own a major league-best 8-1 record. It's their best start since opening 13-1 in 1994.
Swirling wind carried napkins and other debris from the stands onto the grass, pushed batted balls away from the fences, and turned some otherwise routine plays into adventures for fielders. Following a couple of days in the 80s, the temperature dipped into the 50s.
And after hitting 11 homers in their previous four games, the Nationals turned to some small ball.
In the first inning, Jayson Werth singled to cap a 10-pitch at-bat, stole second and moved to third when catcher Tyler Flowers' errant throw went into the outfield. Adam LaRoche made it 1-0 with a single on Axelrod's 33rd pitch. He would need 40 just to get the first three outs.
In the third, Denard Span singled, stole second, took third on Werth's flyout and came home on Harper's single up the middle. After consecutive walks, Ian Desmond's sacrifice fly made it 3-1.
Chicago pulled even in the fourth. With a man on, Axelrod popped up a bunt that first baseman LaRoche couldn't quite reach, and the ball bounced by for an infield single. Alejandro De Aza and Jeff Keppinger hit RBI singles – ending Chicago's 0-for-10 stretch with runners in scoring position over two games.
Haren threw 101 pitches and allowed three runs. Shaky, but far more effective than his Nationals debut after signing a $13 million, one-year contract as a free agent. In that game, he allowed four homers in four innings of a 15-0 loss at Cincinnati, the Nationals' biggest defeat since they brought baseball back to Washington in 2005.
"I've kind of shown flashes of how I can be," Haren said, "but haven't really put it all together yet."
NOTES: Chicago 2B Gordon Beckham needs surgery for a broken bone in his left wrist and is expected to miss six weeks. ... White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper is still hospitalized with an intestinal illness and will skip the rest of the club's 10-game road trip.
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