A.J. Pierzynski, Gamesmanship

Fall Down, Go Boom: Playoffs, Meet A.J. Pierzynski

Did A.J. Pierzynski flop? Of course A.J. Pierzynski flopped. Demean the guy’s character all you want, say that his motivation is outside the boundaries of baseball normalcy, but never say that this man isn’t at all times thinking about ways he could help his team.

The above image, taken during the second inning of Wednesday’s Game 4 of the NLCS, shows the catcher at his evil best. With Hunter Pence on first base and one out, the pitch bounced away from Pierzynski, and Pence advanced to second. The catcher, however, was cagey enough to note that the fortuitously timed backswing of Travis Ishikawa, which clipped him as he sprung up to corral the loose ball, could actually work to his advantage. The blow wasn’t hard enough to impede his progress, but after one step it occurred to him that falling to the ground might benefit his cause.

So Pierzynski tumbled onto his backside, flipping off his mask and helmet in the process in what looked like a belated attempt to make it appear as if they had been knocked off by Ishikawa. What he wanted: Plate ump Mark Carlson to decide that Pierzynski’s path to the ball had been impeded, rule batter’s interference, and send Pence back to first. What he got: Exactly that.

Shrewd. This is the guy who runs across the pitcher’s mound after being retired on the basepaths, just to try distracting the pitcher a smidge. He’ll intentionally get hit by a pitch and then bark at the pitcher, only to rile him up. He’ll act like he was hit by a pitch that didn’t hit him during a no-hitter. If there’s immediate benefit, great, but one gets the idea from looking at Pierzynski’s overall body of work that the guy’s primary goal is to needle his way under the skin of every one of his opponents until they’re thinking about what an asshole he is instead of paying attention to their jobs.

Still, who but an incredibly aware and overly wily player could even consider pulling off something like this, from the 2005 ALCS?:

(More on the fallout from that play here.)

Ultimately, it all makes Pierzynski an asset to whatever team he’s on, for reasons well beyond his ability to play baseball. There’s a reason that his former manager, Ozzie Guillen, once said, “If you play against him, you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less.” Hate him all you want, but give the guy some credit.

Update: As pointed out by reader RoadDogRuss, this was not even the first time Pierzynski fell down on the job.

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A.J. Pierzynski, No-Hitter Etiquette, Ricky Romero

When Bad Things (Pierzynski) Happen to Good Pitchers (Romero)

In the late innings of a no-hitter, certain etiquette is expected from batters. A.J. Pierzynski has never been much for etiquette.

Toronto’s Ricky Romero held the White Sox hitless for seven full innings yesterday, but leading off the eighth, Pierzynski watched a sinking pitch bounce into the dirt near his foot without hitting him, then proceeded to wince, hop and hobble to first.

The fact that the umpires didn’t challenge the masquerade is far less relevant to this conversation than the Chicago catcher’s level of respect for what was happening on the field.

Pierzynski loves to get into the heads of the opposition, and this play was no different. Sure enough, he managed to distract Romero enough for the pitcher to groove one to the next hitter, Alex Rios, who pounded it over the left-field wall for a two-run homer.

Was Pierzynski’s act acceptable?

Pro: Romero had already walked two hitters, so Pierzynski’s acting didn’t destroy a perfect game. With the score 4-0, Pierzynski did manage to become only his team’s third baserunner.

Con: He didn’t even bring the tying run to the plate, let alone the winning run. And while in-game scams are a forte for Pierzynski, the notion prevails that hitters are expected to give their best efforts in situations like this. (The argument that his weasel act is Pierzynski’s best effort, while comical, doesn’t fly.)

It doesn’t take a great pitcher to throw a no-hitter (Greg Maddux didn’t; Bud Smith did), but it does take a combination of a perfect night, a bit of luck and just a touch of magic—a rare set of circumstances that presents us with baseball at its best.

For that combination to be ruined by trickery or deceit does injustice to the game, the fans and the pitcher in question.

Perhaps one day Pierzynski will learn. (But don’t count on it.)

– Jason

A.J. Pierzynski, Kelvim Escobar, Tag Appropriately

Escobar: Hello, N.Y; Goodbye Annoying Catcher

The Mets just signed Kelvim Escobar to a one-year deal. At least in the National League he won’t have to deal with A.J. Pierzynski.

The following is an excerpt from the “Tag Appropriately” chapter of The Baseball Codes that didn’t make the final cut. (All told, 250,000 words from the initial manuscript were trimmed to about 100,000 for the final edition.) This tale involves as its primary characters Escobar, Pierzynski and Pierzynski’s infuriating personality.

* * * * *

In the deciding contest of the 2005 American League Championship Series it seemed as if Angels pitcher Kelvim Escobar disliked White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski more than he liked winning playoff games. In the eighth inning, with the game tied 3-3, two outs and a runner on first, Pierzynski hit a comebacker to Escobar, which ricocheted off the pitcher and toward the first-base line. The reliever pounced on the ball and tagged the runner . . . with an empty glove. The baseball, still in his throwing hand, never touched Pierzynski, who looked back at the pitcher as he ran past, as if to indicate that very point.

Escobar then threw to first in a futile attempt to make a play. After initially calling Pierzynski out, the umpiring crew deliberated, and decided he was safe after all. Joe Crede followed with a run-scoring single to give the White Sox the lead and, an inning later, the game and the series.

It was more than just a bone-headed move by Escobar, however. It was borne of equal parts anger and frustration with Chicago’s catcher.

“It had to be me in that situation,” said Pierzynski after the game in an Agence France Presse report, “because I’m the only person it would happen to.”

Pierzynski was the only person it would happen to at least in part because of his propensity for ending up in the middle of controversial plays that went the White Sox’s way.

During Game 2, in a 1-1 tie with two outs in the ninth inning, Escobar struck Pierzynski out, but umpires ruled that the ball hit the ground before Anaheim catcher Josh Paul caught it. Paul rolled the ball back to the mound and Pierzynski raced safely to first base as a stunned Angels defense looked on. Crede followed with a game-winning double that enabled Chicago to tie the series.

In Game 4, a second-inning Angels rally was killed when outfielder Steve Finley grounded into an inning-ending double play with runners on first and third. Pierzynski later admitted that his mitt tapped Finley’s bat, which should have been ruled catcher’s interference, sending Finley to first base and loading the bases for Adam Kennedy. It should have, but it involved Pierzynksi, and it wasn’t.

All of this might have been a bit more palatable for Escobar and the rest of the Angels had it been anyone but Pierzynski, whose frat-boy attitude and incessant chirping behind the plate made the catcher one of the least popular players in the league. (“If you play against him, you hate him,” said Pierzynski’s manager, Ozzie Guillen in ESPN the Magazine. “If you play with him, you hate him a little less.”)

Escobar was so angry that he tried to inflict a little physical pain in return for the collective emotional misery Pierzynski doled out to his team.

“Escobar wanted to hit him so hard that he forgot the ball was in the wrong hand,” said Guillen in Playboy. “If you look at the replay, you see he went after Pierzynski to hit him hard. If it were another player, it would have been different. He would have been tagged easy. But they want to beat the shit out of Pierzynski.”

– Jason