It’s on in Pittsburgh.
Friday, Reds closer Aroldis Chapman drilled Andrew McCutchen with a 101-mph fastball. (Watch it here. Note: No rubbing.) On Saturday, Reds starter Mike Leake hit Josh Harrison, then walked toward him to deliver a follow-up message. (Watch it here.)
Umpire Brian Gorman warned both benches after the latter incident, an unfortunate development that precluded—correction, delayed—any type of Pittsburgh response. (When Pirates manager Clint Hurdle questioned the decision, Gorman promptly tossed him.) It was enough to lead Sunday’s starter, A.J. Burnett to point toward various Reds players from the dugout, the message being that accountability can sometimes be a painful thing, and he was willing to wait to enforce it.
Warnings may have been issued prior to Burnett’s Sunday start, or perhaps it was because it ended up being a close game until the ninth, or maybe it was because the Pirates had already dropped the first two games of the series to their NL Central rivals and were desperate for a victory, but the right-hander went 8 2/3, giving up only three hits and two runs in a 6-2 victory without hitting anybody (and despite two more Pirates, Rod Barajas and Starling Marte, getting hit themselves).
“No one in here has forgotten about what happened to ‘Cutch,” Burnett said in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We needed a big ‘W’ today.”
“There is a time and a place for [retaliation],” added Barajas. “Today was the time to win. We got that done.”
Pittsburgh did figure out one warning-proof way to make a statement, however. On Saturday, 6-foot-7, 245-pound reliever Jared Hughes tagged out baserunner Dioner Navarro (all 5-foot-9 of him) with a marked shove—a move that Dusty Baker later called “a bully move” in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
The notion of bullying is prominent in these teams’ shared history. It was raised Saturday by Pittsburgh bench coach Jeff Banister, who took over as manager after Hurdle’s ejection. “This is their turf, and they’re trying to bully us,” he said in an MLB.com report.
We’ve heard this story before. From The Baseball Codes:
[Dock Ellis] possessed a clear understanding of the power of intimidation, having seen it in action as his Pittsburgh Pirates teams terrorized the rest of the National League, bullying their way to three division titles and one World Series between 1970 and 1972. In ’73, though, things began to change—the Pirates inexplicably lost their bravado and many more games than expected, finishing below .500 and in third place in the National League East. When they opened 1974 by lurching into last place with a 6-12 record, Ellis took it upon himself to spur a roster-wide attitude adjustment.
He chose as his victims the Cincinnati Reds, themselves coming off two straight division titles and on their way to ninety-eight wins. If Pittsburgh’s new timidity tipped the balance of swagger in the National League against them, the prime beneficiary was Cincinnati. Ellis wanted to reverse that trend.
“[Other teams used to] say, ‘Here come the big bad Pirates. They’re going to kick our ass.’ Like they give up,” said Ellis in Donald Hall’s book, Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball. “That’s what our team was starting to do. When Cincinnati showed up in spring training, I saw all the ballplayers doing the same thing. They were running over, talking, laughing and hee-haw this and that. Cincinnati will bullshit with us and kick our ass and laugh at us. They’re the only team that talk about us like a dog.”
When Ellis took the mound against Cincinnati on May 1, 1974, he had only one strategy in mind: to drill every batter that stepped in against him. The ﬁrst was Pete Rose, who ducked out of the way when a ﬁrst-pitch fastball sailed toward his head, then jumped forward to avoid the second pitch, which ﬂew behind him. The third pitch, aimed at his rib cage, found its mark. Man on ﬁrst, nobody out.
The second batter, Joe Morgan, caught Ellis’s ﬁrst pitch with his kidney. First and second, nobody out. Third up: Dan Driessen. Ellis’s opening shot sailed high and inside for a ball. The second pitch found the middle of Driessen’s back.
The bases were now loaded, but the pitcher was hardly deterred. Cincinnati’s cleanup hitter, Tony Perez, took stock of the carnage and realized his only possible salvation was to stay light on his feet. He proceeded to dance around four straight offerings—including a near wild pitch that ﬂew behind him and over his head—to draw a walk and force in the game’s ﬁrst run. When Ellis went 2-0 to Johnny Bench, Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh couldn’t take any more and removed the pitcher from the game.
“[Ellis’s] point was not to hit batters,” wrote Hall. “His point was to kick Cincinnati ass.” His point was also to inspire his teammates, to instill a measure of toughness in a languor-prone Pittsburgh squad. It might be coincidence, but after that game—which the Reds won, 5–3—the Pirates went 82-62 and won the National League East for the fourth time in ﬁve years.
Trying to intimidate an upstart is hardly new in the pantheon of baseball—just ask Cole Hamels. How the upstart responds is what really matters.
The teams meet again for three in Cincinnati starting Sept. 10, and three more in Pittsburg two-and-a-half weeks later for the season’s final game. Mark your calendars.