We’ve been thinking a lot about baseball retaliation this season—what it means in the modern landscape, and when (and if) it’s ever justified. We’ve thought about it so much, in fact, that one of our most noted bat-tossers had to clarify the idea of “a baseball play,” distinguishing between game action and sideline stupidity, and how a hard slide into a red-ass Rangers infielder should not lead to fisticuffs.
On the other end of the spectrum is Diamondbacks exec Tony La Russa, noting that retaliation is merited even in some cases of unintentional HBPs, should a pitcher with shaky command insist on working the inside edge—a tactic he decried as “intentionally careless.”
Which brings us to Johnny Cueto.
Yesterday in San Francisco, Phillies starter Aaron Nola was terrible, giving up 10 hits and five earned runs over 3 1/3 innings. Also, he hit three batters along the way. Nola is known for his outstanding control (indeed, he didn’t walk a batter against the Giants), but, given his awful June (he became the first Phillies pitcher since 1982 to go four straight starts with fewer than four innings pitched, during which he put up a 15.23 ERA), it’s difficult to mistake any of his mistakes as intentional.
His first and second HBPs, in the first and third innings, each loaded the bases. His third came one batter after his second, and drove in a run. Two of the three came on curveballs.
It mattered little to Cueto. Granted a 5-1 lead with two outs in the top of the fourth, the right-hander planted a fastball into the ribs of cleanup hitter Maikel Franco. Intent was obvious, and plate umpire Doug Eddings immediately warned both benches against further hijinks. (Watch it here.)
We can debate the merits of Cueto’s actions (while making note that the guy has some history with this kind of thing), but more pertinent to this conversation are the consequences.
Cueto, who had allowed one hit prior to drilling Franco, walked the next batter and then gave up back-to-back singles, scoring two runs. An inning later he gave up two singles, a double and a walk, leading to two more runs and a 5-5 score. In the sixth, the Giants having taken a 6-5 lead, Cueto gave up a leadoff homer to Odubel Herrera, costing himself a decision in what otherwise could have been his 12th win. It was his worst start of the season.
Did hitting Franco have anything to do with it?
After the game, Cueto denied intent, then blamed his downturn on Eddings having shrunk the strike zone. Giants manager Bruce Bochy was more clear-eyed, noting that Cueto looked rattled after the warning.
If there is an enduring lesson here, it is that any pitcher who decides to take up for his teammates in such a fashion—whether or not his teammates actually desire such a thing—must be able to withstand whatever repercussions come his way.
On Sunday, that was not Johnny Cueto, who by every reasonable interpretation should have known better.