Keone Kela told the truth. Among the ranks of big league pitchers, this is virtually unheard of when discussing message pitches. It’s the closest the guy got to respectable yesterday.
“The reason I went up and in was strictly, one, to show my intent with my pitch, and to pretty much let Dietrich know that I didn’t necessarily agree with the way things went down,” Kela said following a brawl-marred game between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
“Dietrich,” of course, is Derek Dietrich, Reds outfielder and season-long Pirates antagonist. The up-and-in in question, in the seventh inning of yesterday’s Pirates-Reds game, was a 97-mph fastball that flew past Dietrich’s head and sparked the wildest brawl in the big leagues this season. It was only the latest chapter in what’s become baseball’s most prominent blood feud.
The bad vibes between the teams dates back at least to 2012, but yesterday’s episode tracks to an April 7 game in Pittsburgh, when benches cleared after Chris Archer sailed a pitch behind Dietrich’s backside, a clear response to the pimp-job the hitter did after homering earlier in the game.
In 12 games this year, reported Bobby Nightengale of the Cincinnati Enquirer, the two teams have racked up 15 ejections and nine hit batsmen while facing each other, largely due to the Reds’ belief that Pittsburgh pitchers consistently and intentionally target their hitters.
Kela has a funny way of showing intent. When Archer wanted to send a message back in April, he did it with a pitch below the belt. Yesterday, Kela went for the head. At that point, Cincinnati’s anger, already established, could not be contained. Joey Votto yelled into the Pirates dugout from his position at first base. Manager David Bell came out to vigorously argue balls and strikes with plate ump Larry Vanover, and was ejected. In the ninth, reliever Jared Hughes—who, as a former member of the Pirates, knows whereof he pitches—officially responded to Kela’s would-be beanball by hitting Starling Marte in the posterior with a fastball.
Reds reliever Amir Garrett topped them all, getting into a shouting match with Josh Bell in the ninth inning, then all but telling coach Jeff Pickler, as they were standing on the mound, that he was going to go and fight the Pirates. Then he handed over the baseball and did that very thing.
What mandates examination here is not strictly Kela’s terrible decision about how best to execute his message, although that certainly plays a part. (Somehow, he wasn’t tossed for the pitch, and ended up striking Dietrich out.) It’s that Pittsburgh has made such behavior integral to their game plan. Earlier today, Bill Baer of NBC Sports compiled a list of Pirates brawls over the last few years. It’s not short.
The Pirates have explained it away as an organizational approach, wanting their pitchers dominate the inside corner. That, of course, leads to unintentional HBPs, which make the intentional ones—of which there have been plenty—seem all the worse. (Pittsburgh is tied for second in the National League in batters hit, one behind Miami. Cincinnati is well below league average, at 36.) Then there are those that come in above the shoulders.
“It’s a shame that [the Pirates’ head-hunting] is allowed, and they’re able to get away with it,” Reds manager David Bell—who went after Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle during yesterday’s fight, though he was unable to effectively reach him—told the Athletic. “They celebrate it. They support it. They clearly allow it. I don’t know if they teach, but they allow it. It’s dangerous. … That has been going on all year. It’s bigger than baseball at this point. People you care about, their health is put jeopardy and nothing is done about it. We suffer for it.”
They will continue to suffer for it. So many underhanded shenanigans went down during the course of the battle, highlighted by Garrett’s dugout charge, that both teams would be justified in feeling that they had things for which to retaliate.
Nothing went down during the follow-up meeting between the teams on Wednesday (apart from pregame handshake snubs by each manager), but the Pirates and Reds meet again twice more, once in August and once to close the season in September. Smart money is on more fireworks.
As for Kela, telling the truth will get him what it gets every truth-telling head-hunter: a suspension. It’ll be one of the few moments to come from yesterday’s events that makes any sense.
Update 8/1: Suspensions are here, and they are hefty.