Baseball’s unwritten rules are pretty straightforward. When Manny Machado took out Dustin Pedroia with what many felt was a reckless slide on Friday, it seemed likely that the Red Sox would respond. A pitched ball into the ribcage or thigh, with Machado its probable target, would send a clear message to Baltimore and others around the league that taking liberties with Boston players comes at a price.
Then Matt Barnes threw at Machado’s head and sent the entire framework spinning on its axis.
Instead of closing the book on the incident, Barnes further inflamed some already raw feelings.
Instead of avenging Pedroia, Barnes forced his teammate into the uncomfortable position of having to shout across the field to Machado that the idea wasn’t his.
Instead of showing a unified clubhouse in which mutual accountability is paramount, where everyone has everyone else’s back, the Red Sox appear disjointed, unsure of what’s expected, who wants what, and how to execute when the time comes.
Orioles pitcher Zach Britton nailed it after the game when he told BaltimoreBaseballcom: “[Pedroia] is the leader of that clubhouse, and if he can’t control his own teammates, then there’s a bigger issue over there.”
The Red Sox actually tried to nail Machado earlier in the game, when in the sixth inning starter Eduardo Rodriguez threw three pitches toward Machado’s knees, all of which failed to connect. So two innings later, Barnes took things into his own hands. His head-high pitch just missed its mark, sailing across Machado’s shoulder blades, and ricocheted off his bat for a foul ball. (Watch it all here.)
The egregiousness of the pitch lent undue credence to those suggesting that the time for retaliation had already passed—never mind that in the two games between Machado’s slide and Rodriguez’s aborted response, neither team led by more than two runs, thus diminishing the Boston’s ability to freely cede baserunners to the opposition.
After the game, Pedroia went so far as to completely disavow his role. “That’s not how you do that, man,” he told reporters. “I’m sorry to [Machado] and his team. If you’re going to protect guys, you do it right away.” He then clarified: “It’s definitely a mishandled situation. There was zero intention of [Machado] trying to hurt me. He just made a bad slide. He did hurt me. It’s baseball, man. I’m not mad at him. I love Manny Machado.”
Boston manager John Farrell called it a dangerous pitch, but was it ordered? Possibly. Because Pedroia steered as clear as possible from the result doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have appreciated—or didn’t ask for—a better-placed retaliatory strike. Still, when he shouted across the field to Machado, Pedroia could clearly be seen saying, “It’s not me, it’s them.”
Who them are is of some interest, be it Farrell, a coach or a veteran pitcher offering guidance to Rodriguez and Barnes. Farrell’s statement in an MLB.com report—“Make no mistake, the ball got away from him. My comments are what they are”—leave open the possibility that he approved the message, if not the delivery.
It all serves as background in the face of a rapidly swinging pendulum. On Friday, it was Manny Machado playing the bad-guy role. To judge by his comments on Sunday—“I thought I did a good slide [on Friday]. Everyone knows. Everyone saw the replay on that side. That’s on them”—he has little interest in correcting the record.
Yet with one pitch, Barnes flipped the script for both clubhouses. It’s the Red Sox now wearing the black hats, and the Orioles with leeway to exact some retaliation of their own. (Machado got a measure of revenge after Barnes was kicked out of the game, tagging an RBI double off of the first offering from replacement pitcher Joe Kelly.)
What remains to be seen is how the Orioles respond. If they handle their business correctly, maybe everybody can put this affair behind them. If they do things like Matt Barnes and the Red Sox, however, we can count on things being dragged out even further.
The teams start a four-game series in Boston on May 1.
In a related note, Zach Britton was unusually forthright in his description of how things work in this regard. As related to Rodriguez (in his third year in the league) and Barnes (in his fourth), Britton said this:
“As a player that doesn’t have the most service time in this room, when a guy like Adam Jones tells me to do something or not to do something, I’m going to do [what he says]. Same with Chris Davis or Darren O’Day, the guys in my bullpen. If they tell me, ‘Don’t do this or that,’ I’m going to listen to them because they’ve been around the game and they’ve seen things I haven’t seen. And you respect their leadership.”
As an institution, baseball has been drifting away from unwritten rules like these largely because the leadership Britton referenced features fewer old-school opinions with every year that passes. That doesn’t mean those opinions don’t still exist, however, more strongly in some clubhouses than others. It’s highly unlikely that anybody on the Red Sox suggested that Barnes go head-hunting, but given Pedroia’s response it’s a near-certainty that somebody suggested that a response to Machado was necessary.