After years spent methodically legislating retaliatory pitches out of the prominence they once held within baseball, the Commissioner’s office proved yesterday that it’s willing to recognize the unwritten rules regarding retaliation.
Braves reliever Jonny Venters was suspended for four games (his manager, Bobby Cox, was tagged for one) for drilling Prince Fielder on Saturday.
The Brewers pitchers who responded on Fielder’s behalf—David Riske and Manny Parra (who retaliated by hitting Troy Glaus and Jason Heyward, respectively, on Sunday): No punishment forthcoming.
Before we get into consequences, however, let’s start at the beginning. There is some doubt, after all, about whether Venters even intended to go after Fielder, despite the certainty espoused in Milwaukee’s clubhouse.
It started on Friday, when Fielder was hit in the leg by Braves starter Tommy Hanson, two pitches after a third-inning homer by Ryan Braun.
On Saturday, Fielder homered against Tim Hudson, leading to a five-run seventh inning. Venters opened the eighth with a first-pitch breaking ball that sailed over Fielder’s head and went to the backstop.
A message? Neither Braun nor Fielder appeared to have showed up the Braves during the course of their home runs, and though recent Brewers teams have earned a reputation for an array of showboat maneuvers—untucking shirts when celebrating homers, and last year’s bowling-pin celebration with Fielder at its core come to mind—this year they’ve been relatively clean in that regard. (Several members of the Brewers, however, did untuck their shirts after Saturday’s victory.)
When it comes to purpose pitches, many hitters insist on their ability to unfailingly distinguish intent from mistake.
That doesn’t make it so. In 1999, for example, St. Louis’s Shawon Dunston body-slammed Dodgers rookie Jamie Arnold atop the mound after being hit by a pitch. That he was able to get in such a blow was due largely to the fact that Arnold was gazing at his own shoetops, berating himself for missing his spot. “The only reason I knew he was coming [to the mound] was because I heard the crowd’s reaction,” Arnold said in the Los Angeles Times.
Add to that the fact that Arnold had recently been promoted from Double-A; that in his 18 innings’ worth of big league experience he had walked more hitters than he had struck out; and that he was the Dodgers’ sixth pitcher of the game, and trying merely to stay with the team.
“I didn’t go after him,” said Arnold. “He went after me.”
Even more oblivious was Reggie Sanders, who charged the mound in 1994 after being hit by Pedro Martinez. That the pitcher was trying to protect a 2–0 lead in the eighth inning was one clue it was unintentional; that it was an 0-2 count was another. That Martinez was in the middle of throwing a perfect game should have put to rest any lingering doubts. Without a shred of hyperbole, Sanders was the most obviously unintentionally hit batsman in the history of the game.
When it comes to the Brewers, retaliation in response to success is rare in the modern game, but it does exist. Plate umpire Angel Hernandez recognized the possibility on Saturday, issuing a warning to the Braves bench following Venters’ wild first pitch to Fielder.
When Venters’ next offering ended up in the middle of Fielder’s back, the evidence seemed incontrovertible. Fielder spiked his bat and stalked to first base. Venters and Cox were ejected.
“I don’t know what’s going on there . . .” said Brewers manager Ken Macha in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Braun hits a home run, they drill (Fielder). He hits a home run, his next at-bat they drill him. That’s evidence enough for me.”
Still, things might not be that clear-cut. The most notable factor was the absence of notable factors, as far as possible motivation was concerned.
When Fielder was drilled on Saturday, it was a three-run game, and on Sunday, Venters was wild from the get-go. (“Anyone watching Venters last night knows he was all over the place with his pitches, even in warmups,” wrote David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Above all is Fielder’s proclivity for crowding the plate in a effort to drive the ball to the opposite field. The best protection a pitcher can employ against that is to back Fielder up; there’s a reason only two National Leaguers have been hit more frequently this season.
Braves outfielder Matt Diaz offered this opinion: “I played against Prince in the minor leagues He loves to get his arms extended. So people pitch him in, and he gets hit, and he doesn’t like it. . . . I don’t think there’s any bad blood or anything like that [between the teams]. Just a case of, we’re going to keep going in and try to beat you in. You might get hit every now and then. Unfortunately for him, he has. We’re down by three there, we’re in the ballgame. We’re not trying to put the leadoff hitter on at all.”
Venters denied intent, as did Cox, who, while admitting that the pitch looked intentional, insisted that it was anything but. Cox even went so far as to meet with Macha for 15 minutes before Sunday’s game to clear the air.
It didn’t appear to have much effect.
For the Brewers, Venters’ intent (or lack thereof) ultimately didn’t matter; he came at their big gun, twice—actions that merited response.
For the league office, it was a positive sign that appropriate retaliation will be tolerated. Were the Brewers somehow denied their opportunity (or if the response they took on Sunday was met with punishment), they could well have carried a grudge into next season, owing to the fact that they don’t face the Braves again this year.
Macha has developed a reputation as a dispassionate manager, to the detriment of his club’s credibily when it comes to this sort of matter. Sunday’s response will help change that.
On both counts, it’s a step in the right direction.
Update (8-1-10): MLB rescinded Venters’ suspension, deciding in retrospect that he did not throw at Fielder intentionally … or at least intentionally enough to prosecute.