Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead

Twin Hacks 3-0, Gets Teammate Plunked, Reminds Us That People Still Pay Attention To This Kind Of Thing

There was some old-school baseball played in Arlington yesterday like we haven’t seen in years.

The setting: Minnesota leads the Rangers 13-5 in the ninth. With one out and nobody on, Texas reliever Shawn Kelly goes 3-0 on Twins right fielder Jake Cave. Cave is feeling good; he’s already punched an RBI double to right field and walked on the night, and has scored two runs. In a season short of personal highlights for him, this has been a good game.

He swung at the next pitch.

Some people decry the anachronistic nature of baseball’s unwritten rules, but there’s no denying the rationale behind some of them. I discussed this one in The Baseball Codes: “The last thing a pitcher wants to do with his team down by a wide margin late in the game is walk batters, which not only suggests unnecessary nibbling but extends a game that players want to end quickly. When a count gets to 3-0 … it’s a near-certainty that the ensuing pitch will be a fastball down the middle.”

As such, hitters are expected to lay back and, in the name of expedience for all involved, allow the pitcher to level the playing field.

That’s not what Cave did.

The second-year player swung at a 90-mph fastball, delivered slower than normal to improve accuracy with the understanding that Cave would not take advantage. Cave responded by smacking a single to right.

Did Kelly notice? He threw three inside pitches to the next hitter, Max Kepler, then drilled him with a fastball. This did not go without mention on the broadcast.

We don’t hear a lot anymore about the rule that limits 3-0 swings in blowout games, but the rationale behind it remains valid. Pitchers are expected to avoid nibbling around the corners when up or down by a lot of runs late in a game. The last thing anybody from either dugout wants to see in a blowout is the pace grinding nearly to a halt while a pitcher tries to finesse the edges. Kelly is 35 years old and in his 11th season. It’s no surprise that he remembers the basics.

The event reminds me of one of my favorite stories from The Baseball Codes, which also involves the Twins. It happened in 2006, in a game in which Minnesota led the Red Sox 8-1 in the eighth inning. With two outs and nobody on base, Torii Hunter drew three quick balls to start his at-bat against Red Sox reliever Rudy Seanez.

The unwritten rulebook does not equivocate at this moment, prohibit­ing hitters in such situations not just from swinging hard, but from swing­ing at all. Hunter did both, and his cut drew appropriate notice on the Minnesota bench. “After he swung I said to him, ‘Torii, you know, with a seven-run lead like that, we’ve got to be taking 3-0,’ ” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. “He honestly had not even thought about it.”

“I wasn’t thinking,” admitted Hunter. “I just wanted to do something. I knew a fastball was coming, and if I hit a double or whatever, we could get something going. I was just playing the game. I got caught up in it.” The incident serves to illustrate the depth of the Code’s influence. Hunter was generally aware of the unwritten rules, and except for rare instances of absentmindedness abided by them—while simultaneously disdaining much about their very existence. “Man on second, base hit, and you’re winning by eight runs, you hold him up at third,” he said. “You play soft, and I hate that part of the game. I hate that you don’t keep playing the way you’re supposed to, but you have these unwritten rules that you don’t run the score up on guys. Well, okay, what if they come back? The runs we didn’t score, now we look bad. We don’t think about that. At the same time, those rules have been around a long time, and if you don’t fly by them, you’ll probably take a ball to the head, or near it.

“You don’t want to embarrass anybody, but what’s embarrassment when you’re trying to compete? There’s no such thing as embarrassment. You’re out there to try to win, no matter what the score looks like. Whether it’s 4–3 or 14–3, you’re trying to win. I’ve seen guys come back from 14–3 and win the game 15–14. If I go out there and try not to embar­rass you and you come back and win, I look like the dummy.”

It’s a powerful system that forces an All-Star to override his competi­tive instincts for a code in which he does not believe. If one wants to avoid retribution, one must embrace the unwritten rules; barring that, Hunter learned, an act of contrition can suffice.

After the game, Gardenhire took the outfielder to the visitors’ club­house to speak to Red Sox manager Terry Francona, trying to wipe away the potential for hard feelings. To abide by the unwritten rule that bars opposing players from the locker room, the meeting took place in a rear laundry room in the bowels of the Metrodome. There Hunter informed both managers that he had swung out of inattention, not disrespect.

“We wanted to make sure [Francona] understood,” said Gardenhire. “I went there to let him know that I know the game too. It’s a manager’s responsibility when a player swings 3-0 to make sure the player under­stands that. I wanted him to know we didn’t give a sign for him to swing away, that Torii just made a mistake. I thought that it was good for Torii to explain it to him, so I took him over.”

Francona brushed it off as no big deal, saying that his mind had been wrapped around devising ways for the Red Sox to come back in the final frame and that he hadn’t even noticed. He did, however, express his appreciation for the visit. And the rationale worked. It appeased the mem­bers of the Red Sox who had noticed—there were several—and no bean­balls were thrown the following day.

“You see those types of things and you know it’s being taken care of internally,” said Red Sox pitching coach Al Nipper. “You say, Hey, it’s an honest mistake, it wasn’t something intentional, where the guy’s trying to show you up. We all make mistakes in this game. Ron Gardenhire is a class manager, and that was a true coaching moment for him. . . . I guarantee you, that was a moment he probably didn’t relish to have to do with a vet­eran, but he had to do it.”

In yesterday’s game, Cave, like Hunter, appears to have forgotten the situation before he swung, offering an embarrassed shrug at first base when informed of what he’d just done. Kelly may well have overreacted by drilling Kepler, but the hitter knew exactly why it happened, and trotted down to first base without further incident.

This kind of thing doesn’t come around often, but it sure is fun to examine it when it does.

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