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On the Bryce Harper injury: Why was that game even being played?

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MLB has to be willing to cancel games under certain circumstances. This was one of them.

Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

As you no doubt know, Bryce Harper of the Nationals was injured in the first inning of Saturday’s game against the Giants.

If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the video. (WARNING! It’s pretty gruesome.)

Harper and the Nats are very, very fortunate:

Harper was carried off the field by team athletic trainers, but once he got to the dugout steps leading toward the clubhouse, he told the training staff to go away. It was time to see if he could walk or if he would again crumple to the ground. Those steps, that slow walk up more stairs into the clubhouse, helped assure Harper that he had avoided his worst fears.

And an MRI on Harper's left knee Sunday reveled why the Nationals felt they "dodged a bullet" when Harper was found to have a significant bone bruise but no ligament or tendon damage. There is no timetable for his return; however, Harper is expected to return this season.

I’m here to tell you that injury should never have happened, because in my opinion that game should never have been played.

The Giants and Nats were rained out Friday night, in a game that was to have begun the only visit by the Giants to Washington this year. It was rescheduled as part of a split doubleheader Sunday.

Then it started raining again Saturday night, and hard, and for a long time. It finally stopped and the first pitch of Saturday’s game was scheduled for 10:05 p.m.

Ten. O. Five. When the teams had two games to play Sunday, the first one starting at 1 p.m. This meant that the teams would have to play three games in about 24 hours. As it turned out, the night game Sunday went into extra innings and ended at 10:35 p.m., so the teams played 29 innings in 24½ hours. That’s... not optimal.

My point here is this: The Nationals entered Saturday’s play leading the N.L. East by 15 games. Their magic number to clinch the division title, entering Monday, is 33 — they could, with a bit of help, clinch by Labor Day. The Giants, meanwhile, enter Monday 37 games out of first place. Their elimination number for the N.L. West title is eight (!), and for any wild-card consideration, it’s 26. They are likely mathematically eliminated by Labor Day.

This game was meaningless. Major League Baseball has, over the last few years, become more and more insistent that every team play every game, damn the consequences. But this game, even in mid-August, isn’t going to affect anyone’s postseason chances, and by forcing the teams to play late in the evening on a field that was still wet (it was still raining lightly when Harper’s injury occurred), things like this are more likely to happen.

I am well aware that quite a bit of money is involved in cancelling a game and not making it up. Attendance at the Saturday game was 32,344. I don’t know what the average price of a Nats ticket is, but we’re likely talking about having to refund something on the order of $1 million, not chump change even in this era.

Still. Is that $1 million worth risking the health of everyone on the field, including one of the game’s biggest stars?

Christina Kahrl of ESPN has another take:

Too little, too late, but it's worth asking why Bryce Harper was in the lineup in a meaningless game in chancy circumstances. Blaming MLB scheduling is easy, but they don't make out the lineup card or design the roster. While acknowledging they have six hitters on the DL, with their 14.5-game lead do the Nats really need an 8-man pen?

That’s certainly valid. Given the poor field conditions and the fact that the game was pretty much meaningless, Dusty Baker could have sat Harper.

ESPN’s Buster Olney says to blame the bases themselves:

A question that would be worthwhile for Major League Baseball and the union to explore: In this time of advanced technology, could there be a better and safer composition to the bases -- particularly at first base?

It’s a question as simple and as natural as whether there’s a better face mask for catchers, or a better batting helmet for hitters.

Some coaches have noted in recent years that the bases are more rigid than they used to be. Some teams will swap out bases during the course of game action and sell the old ones as game-used, perhaps contributing to the diminished pliability.

Is that real or is that perception? It’s hard to say without more examination.

This is also valid. Olney goes on to say that decades ago, the bases were softer canvas bags, as you can see in this classic photo of Ty Cobb stealing a base sometime around 1910:

Charles M. Conlon/Sporting News Archive via Getty Images

Changing the composition of the bases might not be a bad idea. In fact, why are bases the way they are, something that is raised above the playing field, while home plate is a flat surface? (I suspect the answer is, “Because they’ve always been that way.”) It’s certainly worth examining the possibility of change.

But MLB should also be more flexible in cancelling games if they don’t mean anything to anyone’s final standing. Barring a catastrophic collapse, the Nats are going to win the N.L. East. Barring some miracle finish, the Giants are not only going to miss the postseason, but they’re probably also going to finish in last place.

Cancelling Saturday’s game would have been the right thing to do under the circumstances. MLB needs to allow for this possibility in cases like this. Everyone’s indeed fortunate that Bryce Harper didn’t suffer a season-ending injury in a meaningless game.