Washington Nationals: Patience couldn’t save Hunter Strickland

JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 25: Hunter Strickland #60 of the Washington Nationals pitches during a Grapefruit League spring training game against the St Louis Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium on February 25, 2020 in Jupiter, Florida. The Nationals defeated the Cardinals 9-6. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 25: Hunter Strickland #60 of the Washington Nationals pitches during a Grapefruit League spring training game against the St Louis Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium on February 25, 2020 in Jupiter, Florida. The Nationals defeated the Cardinals 9-6. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

Hunter Strickland’s tenure with the Washington Nationals has already come to an end.

Hunter Strickland was infamous enough in Washington Nationals history before the Nats dealt for him just before last season’s trade deadline. Now he’s a former Nat, the club having released him Saturday, even as baseball still ponders whether to impose roster freezes while activity is suspended over coronavirus alarm.

Strickland’s acquisition might have been the last thing Nats fans expected considering the Memorial Day 2017 dustup he triggered against the Nats as a San Francisco Giant. Over an almost three-year-old pair of Bryce Harper‘s postseason home runs.

Harper, of course, signed a $330 million, thirteen-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies at the end of February 2019. If the Nats were going to add Strickland to the pitching staff while Harper was still a Nat, it might have been extremely ticklish to wonder whether the pair would shake hands and let bygones be bygones or draw swords.

More Nationals. Something is holding Robles back. light

Strickland became a Nat when the team’s most desperate need as they’d re-horsed and begun their trek to the 2019 postseason was remaking/remodeling a bullpen that could have been tried by jury for arson earlier in the season. He actually started well enough with a 3.14 August ERA.

Then his proneness to home runs not hit by Harper reared a too-ugly head the rest of the way. It went from too-ugly to absolutely grotesque in the postseason.

Thrown out to work the ninth in Game One of the division series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Strickland surrendered a one-out bomb to Gavin Lux and a two-out bomb to Joc Pederson.  In Game Three, Strickland got the ninth-inning assignment with the game 8-4, Dodgers, in Nationals Park. He surrendered a leadoff single to David Freese and a two-run homer to Russell Martin. It left Strickland having surrendered a staggering nine home runs in thirteen lifetime career innings.

But in 2014 Strickland surrendered the pair that would lead to his most infamous afternoon. In Game One of that year’s division series, Harper led off the bottom of the seventh with a homer, preceding Astrubal Cabrera’s solo bomb by two batters. In Game Four, Strickland faced Harper again in the top of the seventh, this time with one out, and Harper blasted one clean into McCovey Cove.

Strickland steamed over those jolts—never mind that both came in games the Giants won. (By identical 3-2 scores, even.) He steamed especially over the thought of Harper showboating the Game Four blast, when Harper wasn’t showboating so much as he was making sure the ball would fly out fair: the blast flew straight over the right field foul line. Just as with his ultimate grand slam to win one for the Phillies against the Cubs last August.

It took almost three years for Strickland to face the Washington Nationals again. Harper led off the top of the eighth, unaware that Strickland planned to drill him and that none of Strickland’s teammates were especially supportive of the idea going in. Giants catcher Buster Posey set up behind the plate for a fastball down the middle and under Harper’s knees.

Washington Nationals
Washington Nationals /

Washington Nationals

Strickland instead threw the fastball right into Harper’s right hip. The ball ricocheted on a high curve over the third base foul line. Indignantly and very understandably, Harper took a few steps forward before flipping his bat to one side, charging, throwing his helmet furiously, and taking Strickland on. Not one Giant moved so much as a muscle—not even Posey standing behind the plate—until the pair exchanged several punches.

Then they poured out of the dugouts toward the mound. And cost former Nat Michael Morse what was left of his career, when he moved to get between Harper and Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija and got plowed into a concussion when Samardzija slammed into him.

That was then: Nats general manager Mike Rizzo calling Strickland “selfish,” adding, “If it’s for a team-worthy cause where you’re protecting somebody, or that type of thing, teammates are fine with it. But when it’s a selfish act because you couldn’t get a guy out, that’s where I think a line was crossed.” Especially when you couldn’t get him out almost three years earlier and hadn’t seen him until then.

This was last August, after getting Strickland from the Seattle Mariners despite his having made only four appearances on the year to date thanks to injuries: “Love the attitude, the chip on his shoulder,” the GM said. “He’s a tough guy that brings it. You love him or you hate him, and he’s a National now.”

The tough guy who brought it got brought only too vividly last fall. He’s a former member of the Washington Nationals now. Where Strickland goes from here is open to speculation. He won’t be hurting, though, since the Nats still have to pay him a fourth of the $1.6 million for which Strickland signed during the offseason.

His injury-plagued 2019 seems to have changed him. As a Mariner, he became notable for buying volumes of donuts for his teammates on Sundays. This spring, before the shutdown, Nats manager Dave Martinez saw a far more patient Strickland. With opponents as well as with himself.

“He has this sense of calmness to him that I’ve not seen,” Martinez told MLB.com last week. “He’s always been a guy when he was on the other side, come in a game real intense. He still is that guy, but in a whole different demeanor, and I like it.”

Strickland through March 6 made four spring appearances, facing 21 batters and allowing seven hits, five runs, two homers, a walk, and striking five out. It probably took a lot of patience to work through that and keep his professed goal to win and stay healthy. And he admitted patience wasn’t always his virtue until now.

“I learned patience,” he said of 2019 before and after the lat injury that curtailed him in Seattle. “That’s what I struggle with mostly because we like to be in control and we like to play. We like to play. To kind of take a step back from that and figure out what’s most important—I have two little girls now, so family time—it puts life in a different perspective.”

Next. Time to move on from Michael Taylor. dark

Being released while the game is shut down over a viral epidemic puts life even further into such perspectives. More so than in baseball, no matter which other teams might take a flyer on a 31-year-old, six-year relief veteran. Strickland is still young enough to make that work for him in his mind and his heart. Wherever might be his next baseball stop.