Tensions are heightened come playoff time, which may explain why Ronald Acuña Jr.’s excitable response to his ninth-inning, two-run homer off of Carlos Martinez in Game 1 of the NLDS proved so annoying to the St. Louis pitcher. Acuña had absolutely smashed the ball—455 feet, as measured by Statcast—to close the Cardinals’ lead to 7-5, and gesticulated wildly toward his teammates in the Braves dugout as he rounded the bases.
This followed a notable moment in the third, when Acuña failed to run hard out of the box on what he assumed would be a home run, but which ended up as a single when the ball bounced off the wall. Acuña ended up stranded on base when he might otherwise have represented what would be a vital run for his team.
Acuña’s home run celebration was enough to shake Martinez to the point that he had to be calmed down by Yadi Molina. The right-hander then gave up an even longer home run two batters later, to Freddie Freeman, although he did finally close out what would be a 7-6 victory. Martinez was so upset after the game that he closed out the game by screaming at the Braves dugout, then said afterward: “I wanted [Acuña] to respect the game and respect me as a veteran player.”
And so we find ourselves back in the no–man’s–land of baseball celebrations, which have been officially sanctioned by the commissioner’s office even while a number of pitchers continue to bristle at them. Would Acuña’s antics have drawn notice had his Game 1 homer given his team the lead, rather than coming as it did with the Braves up, 3-1? Would Martinez have cared less had Acuña not already pulled something similar, with disastrous results, earlier in the game? Who knows?
Typically, the postseason is not a place to settle old scores. Even a remote possibility that an ill-timed retribution HBP can come back to bite you is enough to keep teams in line until stakes are lower. Sure enough, the series’ second, third and fourth games never saw either club with a lead of more than three runs.
Game 5, however, was different. St. Louis scored 10 in the first, one in the second and two more in the third, and led 13-1 when Acuña stepped in against Jack Flaherty with two outs in the fifth inning. Flaherty drilled him in the upper arm. Acuña slowly made his way to first base, chirping toward the mound all the while.
The evidence against the pitch being intentional: There was a runner on; it came on the fifth pitch of the at-bat, with three of those pitches being strikes (including a foul ball); it was a fastball, but not Flaherty’s fastest, the two-seamer coming in at just 90 mph.
The evidence for it being intentional: Apart from the history between the teams, it was mostly the Flaherty’s comments after the game. Via Jeff Jones: “It hit him. He took exception to it. That’s the guy he wants to be. That’s how it is. He’s been having all his antics all series. The guy hits a ball off the wall, he gets a single out of it. So he wants to take exception to it, he can do whatever he wants. He can talk all he wants. But we tried to go in, we talk, our scouting report is go in, we go in. So it got away, it hit him. He wants to take exception to it, he can do whatever he wants.”
Sure sounds to me like a guy with a grudge.
Flaherty denied intent as part of his diatribe against Acuña, but Cards skipper Mike Shildt seemed to feel otherwise in his postgame speech to the team after they finally put Atlanta away.
The primary takeway after a game like that is that with a 12-run lead, pitchers with malice aforethought have leeway to do whatever they think is right, even during a playoff game. The Braves have all winter to consider this, and how they might respond come next spring.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, now on to the NLCS, have more pressing matters on their minds.