It’s a funny thing, this COVID baseball. Some guys can’t seem to remember to wear a mask or stay within the perimeter of the team hotel, but when it comes to responding to past injustices they’re a bunch of goddamn elephants. Never forget a thing.
That is why, when Masahiro Tanaka pitched inside to Joey Wendle with two outs in the first inning of yesterday’s Yankees-Rays game, then drilled him with his next pitch (which, at 95 mph, was the hardest he threw all night by a considerable margin) nobody had to question what was happening.
The intent was clear. Tanaka has walked four batters this season over six starts. Wendle was the first one he’s hit. The question was, why?
Well, a day earlier the first pitch thrown by Tampa Bay starter Tyler Glasnow had been up and in to D.J. LeMahieu—the latest in a pattern that has seen Rays pitchers working the Yankees, and LeMahieu in particular, inside all season long. That might have been it. Or maybe somehow the Yankees are still sore about the time late in 2018 when Rays reliever Andrew Kitteridge threw a retaliatory fastball at Austin Romine’s head (and missed). That seems like old news, especially given that C.C. Sabathia responded in spectacular fashion the following day, but people keep talking about it so maybe it’s still a thing.
Something that almost undoubtedly contributed is the fact that Tampa Bay has kicked the snot out of the Yankees this year, winning seven out of eight games prior to Tuesday night. Is that the difference in the American League East? Hell yeah, it is.
Maybe Tanaka just wanted to change the tone.
To his credit, Tanaka went by the unwritten rulebook and plunked Wendle in the backside. Wendle took it well, smiling in recognition as he trotted to first base—as did the rest of the Rays, who didn’t force the issue as the game progressed.
That’s where things stood until the ninth, when Aroldis Chapman, in to protect a 5-3 lead, threw his second pitch to Wendle up and in, at 95 mph. After Wendle grounded out to first, Chapman’s second pitch to the next hitter, Austin Meadows, was also up and in, this time at 99 mph. Meadows eventually lined out. This seemed like a message. It’s also where things took a turn.
With two outs and nobody on base, Chapman’s first pitch to Mike Brosseau was a 101-mph fastball that barely missed the batter’s head, Brosseau ducking out of the way in the nick of time. Chapman stalked down the mound toward the plate, all but daring Brosseau to respond. The umpires quickly intervened, warning both benches.
After Chapman struck out Brosseau to end the game, the Yankees dugout did a bit of yelling (much of it from third base coach Phil Neven, as is frequently the case). Yelling, in fact, seems to be a theme between these teams this season. Last month at Tropicana Field, reports had Nevin shouting “Get him out of there” every time a Rays coach visited the mound. Yesterday, Tampa Bay’s Mike Zunino shouted something similar after James Paxton gave up back-to-back homers to tie the score in the seventh. With no fans in the stands, sound carries this season. Maybe that set Chapman off.
Brousseau responded to the chirping and dugouts quickly emptied, even as “New York, New York” blared over the Yankee Stadium PA. At least nobody actually came into contact with the other team. Some players even remembered to wear masks.
There are obvious questions about what this all means going forward. After the game, Rays manager Kevin Cash amplified them with the biggest megaphone he could find, calling the situation “ridiculous,” “mishandled by the Yankees” and “mishandled by the umpires.”
“They hit Joey Wendle intentionally in the first inning,” he fumed. “It was clear as day. Chapman comes in, he throws three different balls up and in. I get it—they don’t like being thrown up-and-in. But enough’s enough. We’re talking about a 100-mph fastball over a young man’s head. It’s poor judgment. Poor coaching. It’s just poor teaching, what they’re doing, and what they’re allowing to do. The chirping from the dugout.”
Strong opinions, to be sure, but nothing too out of the ordinary. Then Cash said this: “I’ve got a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 mph. Period.”
Threat registered. “It sounds like they’re going to try to throw at us tomorrow,” LeMahieu said. “We’ll be ready.”
The teams meet today for the final time this regular season. Even with umpires on high alert, given what we’ve seen so far, this confrontation is far from finished.
Update 9/2: Punishment has been levied: Chapman docked three games plus a fine for throwing at somebody’s head; Boone suspended one game because Chapman is an idiot; and Cash suspended one game for his postgame threat.
Update 2, 9/2: Brosseau got his revenge on Wednesday, hitting two homers and doing this: