Andrew McCutchen, Jack Taschner, Ramon Ortiz, Retaliation, Zach Duke

Pirate Protection Falters; Duke Takes Blame

There are two prominent theories about why Pirates pitcher Zach Duke called himself out in the media for having failed to appropriately retaliate Saturday, after the Dodgers took one too many shots at Pittsburgh outfielder Andrew McCutchen:

  • Having failed to adequately protect his teammate, he realized that the best way to regain respect from within his clubhouse was to publicly recognize his failure.

or

  • He lost his mind.

Pitchers just don’t talk about this kind of thing to daily newspaper reporters. It would have been an especially egregious discussion had Duke actually targeted a member of the Dodgers (admitting one’s intentions in this regard provides the  commissioner’s office with all the ammunition it needs to levy a suspension), but even the simple acknowledgement that it needed to be done raised many an eyebrow.

The backstory: McCutchen hit a home run in the first inning against Dodgers pitcher Carlos Monasterios, making his first major league start. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette suggested that McCutchen might have showboated just a touch with a “celebratory gesture” as he rounded second, although the outfielder denied having done anything improper, telling reporters that “I play the game right.”

That Monasterios hit Lastings Milledge and Ronny Cedeno in the second inning could be viewed as retaliatory, or simply the mark of a nervous young pitcher failing to hit his spots. Pittsburgh’s lack of response was defensible.

In the fifth, however, Dodgers reliever Ramon Ortiz first buzzed McCutchen, then dropped him with a fastball spotted directly at his head, which the slugger managed to avoid.

The prescribed reaction to this was clear. Even if Ortiz’s pitches were unintentional (although it’s useful in this situation to remember Don Drysdale‘s maxim that the second purpose pitch is the most important, because it shows that the first wasn’t a mistake), placing a fastball near a hitter’s head is impossible to ignore. Response was mandatory.

Duke didn’t deliver, pitching two more innings. To make matters worse, he had the rare chance to face Ortiz himself, in his first plate appearance since 2007, and instead of sending a message, struck him out on four pitches.

Instead, it was Pirates reliever Jack Taschner (who took over in the seventh), who promptly threw a fastball behind Dodgers slugger Andre Ethier.

The message was clearly received; the Los Angeles dugout came alive with players telling Taschner at high volume exactly what they thought of him, his tactics and his mother.

Afterword, many members of Pittsburgh’s clubhouse were livid. The Post-Gazette went so far as to report that Pirates manager John Russell was “privately livid” about the situation. “It can be expected that the coaching staff will address Duke’s role, specifically,” read the report.

All of which is reason for Duke to be repentant, fully and publicly. This sort of self-inflicted humiliation serves as resounding proof to his teammates of lessons learned. (Why it took a six-year vet so long to figure it out is another matter entirely.)

Duke is the best pitcher on an atrocious Pirates staff. His team has little choice but to forgive him, but his leash in this regard will be exceptionally short. Next time a similar situation comes up on his watch, expect a vigorous response.

Update: Why didn’t Russell just order Duke to respond? Find out here.

– Jason

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6 thoughts on “Pirate Protection Falters; Duke Takes Blame

  1. I understand the unwritten rules are in place as a sign of respect from players to their teams and other players in all sports, but this was unnecesary. Why should he have to appologize for doing something morally right? Not wanting to take a shot at an opposing player is a credible feat. Just think, the other team is expecting a retalliation for hitting his teammates. Isn’t the best course at times mental warfare? Keeping them guessing at when and where the pitcher will strike? If anybody is in the wrong, and needs to apologize, it is Taschner for taking the shot. Duke did what he is paid to do: Pitch.

    1. The problem with your thesis is that your vantage point is that of an outsider, in which such expectations are entirely reasonable. Regular folk don’t (or at least shouldn’t) settle squabbles with force.

      On a baseball diamond, however, should a pitcher fail to respond to a blatant act of aggression (and the act in question was blatant), it sends two messages: one to the other team, that they can go ahead and act like bullies all they want, because no response will be forthcoming; and one to his teammates, that they’re not worth standing up for.

      It’s essentially playground logic. Stand up for yourself and the bullying will stop. Let it happen, and it will go on indefinitely.

      There’s no quicker way for a pitcher to lose the support of his clubhouse; once that happens, he’s as good as done. Not only should Duke have responded, it was his only choice–and he failed to take it. That’s why he went through such great lengths to atone. It was a serious oversight, and he knew it.

      – Jason

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