WASHINGTON, D.C. -- With a man on second base and Dylan Axelrod near 100 pitches in the fourth inning on Thursday night Robin Ventura faced an unenviable decision.
Bryce Harper or Ryan Zimmerman?
Rather than face the Washington Nationals’ phenom, who to that point had torn up White Sox pitching, Ventura opted for Axelrod to face the cleanup man. Zimmerman didn’t take kindly to the strategy and smacked a two-run double as the Nationals closed out a series sweep of the White Sox with a 7-4 win in front of 24,785 at Nationals Park.
The hit effectively ended a miserable series in the nation’s capitol for the South Siders, who lost more than just three games. Earlier Thursday, the club learned second baseman Gordon Beckham has a broken left hamate bone and is out at least six weeks and that pitching coach Don Cooper is out the rest of the road trip as he recovers from diverticulitis.
[More: White Sox shuffle staff with Cooper out of commission]
“Harper is hot,” Ventura said. “The swings he was having earlier off of Axe, you are just rolling the dice either way. You just take your chance and (Zimmerman) got him. … It’s tough. You just have to be able to withstand all that and keep going.”
Axelrod had withstood plenty by the time Harper stepped to the plate in the fourth with the score tied at 3 and runners on the corners.
The right-hander needed 40 pitches to get through his first inning of work and it had caught up to him.
Opposing pitcher Dan Haren doubled with one out in the bottom of the fourth inning and Jayson Werth singled with two outs to set up Harper, who was 5-for-10 with a homer and two RBIs in the series.
After Axelrod’s first offering went for a wild pitch and Haren scored to make it 4-3, Ventura had Harper walked. With an already overworked bullpen and a base open, Ventura believed his best option was a righty-on-righty matchup and stayed with Axelrod.
Zimmerman, for his part, took no offense to the strategy.
“I don't really think it's any more of they'd rather pitch to someone more than they would rather pitch to the other person,” Zimmerman said. “There's really not anyone in our lineup you'd rather pitch to, I don't think. … There's not many breaks anywhere in our lineup.”
Axelrod found out shortly thereafter when Zimmerman won a six-pitch showdown as he drove a 3-2 changeup over Alex Rios’ head in right to give Washington a commanding 6-3 lead.
“I didn’t want to give in,” Axelrod said. “(The changeup) seemed like a good idea at the time. … In retrospect, it was probably, he might have been sitting soft in that situation.”
The White Sox don’t plan to raise any white flags even after they lost Beckham until perhaps June.
[More: Beckham hits disabled list with with broken hamate bone]
Nor will they be dismayed by a series in which they went 4-for-29 with runners in scoring position. That malady caught up with them again on Thursday as the White Sox had ample chances against Haren, but couldn’t capitalize.
The top three hitters in the order reached base seven times but only scored once when Adam Dunn doubled in Alejandro De Aza in the sixth inning. Alex Rios doubled twice in four at-bats to extend his hitting streak to 15 but even that wasn’t enough as the White Sox stranded 10 base runners.
“It was a tough three days,” said first baseman Paul Konerko, who reached base in three of five plate appearances. “We didn’t play terribly. We just got beat out there. They did every little thing, all the parts of the game. We weren’t bad at them. We were ok at them. They were just a little bit better in every area.”
Ventura seconded the notion the White Sox won’t give in after they were swept by a team many analysts believe is the best in the National League. He credited Washington for having as good a lineup as the White Sox see in the American League. And although they’re without Beckham, Ventura knows the schedule won’t afford the White Sox any leeway.
“It’s still early,” Ventura said. “It’s one of those you find out what you are made of and keep going the next day. There’s no break. You keep going.”