Retaliation

Tension in Texas: Tempers Flare When They Didn’t Have To. Again.

Napoli steps

Just last week we discussed the importance of understanding baseball’s unwritten rules, regardless of how one feels about them. Minnesota’s Miguel Sano had been thrown at, and missed, yet still made a stink of things and got tossed out of the game.

Yesterday, it happened again. With two outs and nobody on base in the sixth inning, Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. threw a pitch behind Rangers first baseman Mike Napoli. Houston trailed 2-1 at the time, not a great moment for retaliation, but a purpose pitch that sails wide of its mark cedes only one ball in the count, not a free baserunner. And if the pitch had somehow connected, well, Napoli had already homered and singled against McCullers. Not having to face Texas’ No. 5 hitter wasn’t too big a price to pay.

McCullers’ motivation was clear: Rangers starter Andrew Cashner had drilled Jose Altuve in the first inning and Yuli Gurriel in the second. After the pitch sailed behind Napoli, the batter took several angry steps toward the mound, and benches quickly cleared. (Watch it here.)

This is where we get into the importance of knowing what’s actually going on.

In the modern game, it’s a stretch to think that two unintentionally hit batters, guys who took first base without incident and, in Altuve’s case, came around to score, merit response. But McCullers, the son of a former big league pitcher, may have learned to view such things a bit more dogmatically.

So personal was the decision behind his pitch that his catcher, Brian McCann, didn’t give a thought to stopping Napoli’s advance on the mound, which is every catcher’s prime responsibility in such situations. Instead, he turned around to retrieve the wild pitch from the backstop, because it never occurred to him that Napoli might be angry.

McCullers’ was the softest response possible for a teammate being hit, a no-impact nod signifying that the Astros were paying attention. It shouldn’t have elicited a raised eyebrow in the Rangers dugout. Instead, we got statements like these, via MLB.com:

  • “They threw at Napoli on purpose. … They threw behind Napoli’s head.” (Cashner)
  • “I think anytime somebody throws behind a hitter’s head it’s going to create some tension.” (Rangers manager Jeff Banister)

As it turned out, McCullers did not throw behind Napoli’s head. His pitch came in across the lower portion of Napoli’s uniform number, closer to his belt than his shoulders. It was so far behind him that Napoli did not have to move to avoid it.

The craziest statement came from Napoli himself: “I understand how things work. Two of their guys get hit, but all he has to do is put it in my hip and I run down to first base. No one likes 95 [mph] behind their back.”

It seems nuts, but he’s arguing that a guy should have hit him rather than missed him.

Folks get caught up in the heat of a moment, but situations like these continue to prove that the dissolution of baseball’s unwritten rules—the fact that each successive generation of ballplayers understands the Code less thoroughly than its predecessors—is playing out poorly. Because there will always be somebody like Lance McCullers Jr., who learned the game the old-fashioned way, willing to make old-fashioned statements. Instead of seeing them for what they are, many younger ballplayers—and sometimes even a 12-year vet like Napoli—will react poorly and inflame tensions where no inflammation is necessary.

Even if Napoli is innocent of his own intent—a step toward the mound with a word of warning for McCullers, followed by an uneventful trip to first base would not be unheard of—he’s surrounded by far younger players who lack the requisite understanding of what had just happened.

That’s what truly raised the temperature in Houston: Even as Napoli stood near the plate, a bevy of his younger teammates streamed from the dugout and, rather than following the veteran’s lead, escalated the proceedings. (Even some older teammates got in on the act, Shin-Soo Choo leading the charge.)

It could be that the Rangers—11-15 and in last place in the AL West, with five members of the starting lineup (including Napoli himself) hitting  below .205—are at a point where baseball is frustrating enough without guys like McCullers nudging the process along.

Then again, after the game Napoli addressed the rivalry between the teams from Texas. “That’s how it should be,” he said. “There’s too much, people that are friends, and talking before the game, buddy-buddy. I remember coming up, if we were playing that night, it was time to get down and play a tough game and do what you have to do to win. It’s what it should be.”

Maybe he gets it after all.

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