Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Pandemic Baseball

Dick Williams Didn't Just Want To Beat The Red Sox, He Wanted To Destroy Them

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. Today’s theme: Part 2 of what and what not to do when your team holds a big lead late in the game.

Dick Williams took over the Red Sox in 1967 as a 38-year-old rookie manager, and guided a club that was coming off of back-to-back ninth-place finishes to the World Series. Still, amid acrimony and injuries to two key starting pitchers, Williams was fired before he could complete his third season—something about which he harbored resentment for years. Once Williams assumed managerial duties for other teams, he didn’t just want to beat the Red Sox, he wanted to destroy them.

Williams bunted whenever he could to advance runners into scoring position, even when games were well in hand. His baserunners tagged up from second on fly balls, even when leads made such tactics unnecessary. And he squeezed.

If stealing second base with a big lead is enough to make an opponent’s head spin, squeezing is enough to blow it clean off his neck. There is no surer we’re-going-to-pull-out-every-last-calculated-measure-in-our-playbook-to-push-another-run-across statement in the game.

Williams took over the Angels in 1974. During a game against Boston the following season, his club used a hit, a walk and an error to extend its lead to 6-2 in the eighth inning. The manager knew just what to do. With runners on second and third and second baseman Jerry Remy at the plate, Williams called for a squeeze that extended the Angels’ lead even further. “You do what the manager says,” said Remy, “but I knew it was the wrong thing to do.”

The next day, Boston pitcher Roger Moret threw at Remy with the first pitch of every at-bat, a subtle message that the squeeze had not been appreciated. Fortunately for Remy, all four pitches missed. “After the game, [Williams] said to me, ‘I guess I got you thrown at,’ ” said Remy. “I said, ‘I guess you did.’ ”

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Pandemic Baseball

Rookies Need To Pay Attention, Too

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. Today’s theme: what and what not to do when your team holds a big lead late in the game.

When Marlins rookie Eric Reed tried to bunt for a base hit with his team holding an 8-0, fifth-inning lead over the Pirates in 2006, he was struggling with a .114 batting average and trying to use his speed to jump-start his offensive game. It didn’t work—Reed was thrown out—but it did manage to stir up the Pittsburgh dugout, where manager Jim Tracy and pitching coach Jim Colborn seethed.

As Reed ambled back to the bench, Marlins pitcher Dontrelle Willis turned to first baseman Wes Helms in the dugout and said, “He’s getting hit the next time up.” “You think so?” asked Helms. “Yep,” said Willis.

Sure enough, the next time Reed came up, with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, he was drilled by Pirates reliever John Grabow—the only baserunner Grabow allowed in the span of seven batters, five of whom he struck out. The intent of the pitch was clear.

“You knew that just about every game Eric was going to try to bunt for a hit at least once,” said his teammate, Matt Herges. “But he didn’t know. He had no idea and he got drilled, and he was pretty upset about it.”

“It wasn’t a very pleasant conversation between the two sides of the field,” said Tracy. “Mr. Reed got … a little reminder of the fact that, hey, don’t do that shit. And no one on their side of the field said one word. It was done very professionally, a nice little jolt to the hip, take your base and we’re done.”

After the game, several Marlins veterans “loud-talked” the locker room, addressing no one and everyone at the same time, their message boiling down to, “No more bunting with a big lead because you’ll get drilled, and you might get us drilled.”

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Pandemic Baseball

When Bad Things Happen To Good Bunters

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. Today’s theme: what and what not to do when your team holds a big lead late in the game.

Ron Brand: “I remember an incident in 1965, we were ahead of Chicago about 6-0 in about the seventh inning. I was up with two outs and the pitcher on deck. Santo was way back, so I dropped down a bunt, and it rolled foul. Ron approached the plate just screaming at me, calling me bush, saying that I was trying to show him up. All I was trying to do was keep the pitcher from leading off the next inning in case he got into trouble on the mound.

“Bob Buhl was the Cubs pitcher, with Santo yelling at me, he came up to me and said, ‘You’d better hang loose.’ He threw at me three friggin’ times, and walked me. I said, ‘Thanks.’ Whether I bunted on them or they walked me, I got the pitcher to hit.

“I told Santo, if you don’t want me to bunt, play close. I’m not a 40-homer guy like you. If you play back, I’ll bunt.’ I think that’s fair. … Santo even agreed with me after I talked with him. I said, ‘You know, you guys have all these good players and you’re behind us in the standings. What does that tell you?’ Maybe their attitude was a little to lackadaisical.

“He came up to me afterwards and said, ‘You know, you’re dead right, we don’t play hard enough.’ I told him, ‘I didn’t want to show you up, I just wanted to get the pitcher out of the on-deck circle, that’s all.’ ”

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Pandemic Baseball

'Lasorda Gave It To Me, So I Said, What The Hell'

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. Today’s theme: what and what not to do when your team holds a big lead late in the game — starting with swinging at a 3-0 pitch.

In 1979, Davey Lopes was playing second base for the Dodgers when his team took a 7-2 lead in the fourth inning against the Reds. Cincinnati reliever Frank Pastore did little to staunch the damage, giving up two singles and three home runs in the span of the first six batters he faced, and in the process became his team’s sacrificial lamb. With no point in burning his bullpen in what was now a 12-2 blowout, Reds skipper John McNamera left Pastore in; by the time Lopes faced him in the sixth it was 14-2, there were runners on first and third and only one out. Pastore was one unhappy right-hander.

When Lopes swung at (and fouled off) a 3-0 pitch, Pastore was even less happy. And when Lopes homered on the on the pitch following that, Pastore was downright pissed. The right-hander was finally pulled, and Reds reliever Dave Tomlin was so upset that he came in from the bullpen after the inning was over to ask McNamera if Lopes would be let off the hook.

“Mac said, ‘No, we’re just going to pick our spot,’ ” recalled Reds third baseman Ray Knight in a Columbus Dispatch report. “[Tomlin] said, ‘When’s our spot?’ He said, ‘The next time [Lopes] comes up.’ ”

The next time Lopes came up was in the eighth inning, and the pitcher he faced was, not coincidentally, Dave Tomlin. Tomlin threw at him four straight times … and missed all four attempts. Lopes took first base, and that more or less ended it.

“At that time, even though I was in the big leagues, I didn’t know that rule,” said Lopes more than 25 years after the fact. “And I still don’t agree with it, because if I’d have popped the pitch up, nobody would have cared if I swung at it. … I had never, ever swung at a 3-0 pitch, but Lasorda gave it to me, so I said, what the hell.”

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Pandemic Baseball

Dave Winfield Knew Better

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. Today’s theme: what and what not to do when your team holds a big lead late in the game.

On May 10, 1993, Minnesota’s Dave Winfield pulled a Hall-of-Fame-worthy turnaround when, in the sixth inning, with the Twins sitting on a 6-1 lead, he took advantage of the deep positioning of Angels third baseman Rene Gonzales (“In left field” was how Winfield described it after the game) and bunted for a base hit. At that point, Winfield was dying to reach base, having entered the game batting .204. When he followed his bunt by stealing second, Anaheim pitchers were furious.

He came up again two innings later, this time with his team leading 8-3, and Angels pitcher Chuck Crim took the opportunity to put a 2-0 fastball underneath his chin. Perhaps it was because Winfield recognized his earlier breach of etiquette, but he limited his anger to a heated glare at the mound as he brushed himself off. “It was a purpose pitch,” said Crim a day later in the Los Angeles Times, “because what he did was uncalled for. I used to have a lot of respect for him, but after he pulled something like that, I lost a lot.”

As a bonus, Winfield found himself in an exceptional situation. He was angry, his team had a big lead and he was facing a 3-0 count. A good hack here was certain to drive the Anaheim bench up the wall. Instead, Winfield struck a conciliatory tone, watching Crim’s next pitch split the plate for a strike. Only then did he start hacking, and eventually lined the eighth pitch he saw into short left field for a single. Crim had nothing more to say and the matter was dropped. 

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Pandemic Baseball

'I Didn’t Even Realize I Was A Triple Away — I Just Knew Not To Show The Other Team Up.'

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. Today’s theme: what and what not to do when your team holds a big lead late in the game.

Bunting for a hit during a blowout is frowned upon, as is calling for a hit-and-run. Swinging with a 3-0 count is out, and woe be to the player who uncorks a huge swing—“from his ass,” in baseball parlance—in such a situation.

This notion of propriety was at the forefront of the mind of F.P. Santangelo one spring afternoon in 1996, his rookie season with the Montreal Expos. Against the Rockies in Coors Field, Santangelo was having the game of his short career, piling up a single, double and home run in five at-bats before he came to the plate in the top of the ninth inning. 

He poked the third pitch he saw into the right-field corner. With Dante Bichette positioned what seemed like miles away in the spacious Coors Field alley, it looked to be an easy triple, with viable potential for an inside-the-park home run. There was, however, another consideration.

The Expos were ahead 20-5 at the time, and in Santangelo’s mind that put the kibosh on digging for extra bases, especially as a young player trying to make a good impression. So the 28-year-old pulled up at second and collected himself, pleased with the latest addition to his statistically impressive day. When he looked into his dugout, however, he was startled to see manager Felipe Alou on the top step, brow furrowed, lips pursed and gaze fixed firmly upon him. With a disgusted shake of his head, Alou raised his outstretched arms, palms up, in the universal symbol of frustration. “I’m out there thinking, ‘I’m four-for-six, standing on second base,” said Santangelo. “What’d I do wrong?”

When he got back to the dugout, Alou told him.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” the manager snapped at the terrified rookie. “You were one base from hitting for the cycle! Do you know how long I played this game?” (The answer to this rhetorical question was 17 years in the majors.) “Do you know how many times I hit for the cycle?” (Rhetorical answer: never.)

To compound matters, it would have been the first cycle in Coors Field history.

“He was pissed,” said Santangelo of the manager. “I didn’t even realize I was a triple away. I just knew not to show the other team up.”

For more nuanced baseball minds (such as, say, Alou) it would have been perfectly appropriate for Santangelo to have trotted into third. For one thing, there was achievement on the line (a cycle), as well as the notion that even by the unwritten rules, nonagressive baserunning—the act of taking a base that is by all rights, yours—is perfectly acceptable. Without a play in the offing, third base was Santangelo’s for the taking.

Decades later, he’s still thinking about why he didn’t.

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Pandemic Baseball

Sheffield Swings First At Ball, Then At Pitcher

With the Padres in 1993, Gary Sheffield swung at a 3-0 pitch—and missed—when his team led by eight runs, and when Dodgers reliever Ricky Trlicek hit him with his next pitch it was almost as if Sheffield had been anticipating that very scenario. As soon as the pitch connected, Sheffield, without hesitation, charged Trlicek and tackled him near the mound as benches emptied onto the field.

What Sheffield overlooked in his victimization scenario was that control wasn’t exactly the right-hander’s bag. After the game, Trlicek took great pains—far beyond the scope of a standard pitcher’s denial—to declare the pitch unintentional, and his story was believable. Trlicek had retired only four of the 11 batters he’d faced prior to drilling Sheffield, giving up six earned runs. The five at-bats preceding Sheffield went: hit by pitch, walk, walk, triple, single. Trlicek was missing his spots so badly that it seemed the only way he could have hit Sheffield was unintentionally; had he wanted to, he probably would have missed.

After the scrape, both pitcher and batter were ejected (it was more or less a mercy killing in Trlicek’s case), and afterward Sheffield confessed to being spurred by guilty feelings over his ill-timed swing. “I just reacted,” he said.

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Pandemic Baseball

'If Harris Thinks That’s Wrong, He Needs To Go To A Psychiatrist'

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. Today’s theme: what and what not to do when your team holds a big lead late in the game — starting with swinging at a 3-0 pitch.

On May 26 1990, the Mets were walking all over San Diego, holding an 11-0 lead in the eighth inning. With two outs and runners on second and third, shortstop Kevin Elster drew three straight balls from Padres reliever Calvin Schiraldi. With the next pitch, Elster hit the exacta—not only did he swing 3-0, but he swung hard. He let out some shaft. He generated some wind.

He made the Padres mad.

When the Mets retook the field, San Diego coach Sandy Alomar asked third baseman Howard Johnson, “Is [Elster] crazy or just stupid?” Elster answerd the question himself when it was posed to him by reporters the next day, saying, “A little of both.”

The following night, San Diego broke open a 2-2 tie with six runs in the eighth inning. The first Met to bat in the following frame was Elster, and with a comfortable lead, pitcher Greg W. Harris performed his role as baseball assassin, with a low-and-outside first pitch to throw off the scent, and a second pitch that hit Elster clean in the back. Elster read the intent immediately, even as he kneeled at the plate in pain. Before he could even get up, Harris offered a bring-it-on wave of his hand, Elster obliged, and benches emptied. At least Elster saw the pitch for what it was, saying after the game in the Los Angeles Times, “It took some guts for Harris to throw at me. I wish some of our pitchers would do the same thing.”

New York manager Davey Johnson didn’t buy it. “If I’m out there, I’d rather have them swinging,” he said in a Newsday report. “Get it over. My guy (Elster) is hitting .170. Why prolong it? If Harris thinks that’s wrong, he needs to go to a psychiatrist.” Perhaps it was coincidence, but Johnson was fired a day later.

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Pandemic Baseball

Today's Lesson: Don't Wake A Sleeping Lion And Bring The Tying Run To The Plate On The Same Pitch

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. Today’s theme: what and what not to do when your team holds a big lead late in the game — starting with swinging at a 3-0 pitch.

In 2001, Tsuyoshi Shinjo jumped to the major leagues after a decade of playing professional baseball in Japan. Well-schooled in the customs of his native league, Shinjo quickly discovered the culture gap. In Japan, a 3-0 swing while holding a big lead was hardly objectionable. As it turned out learning that was not the case in the U.S. proved painful.

On May 24, with his New York Mets club holding an 11-3 lead over the Marlins in the bottom of the eighth inning, Shinjo stepped to the plate with one out and the bases empty. He took three straight balls, then swung at and missed the fourth pitch. On the fifth pitch, he flied out to deep right field.

The result of the at-bat was less important than the impression it left on the Marlins, who felt that Shinjo committed a breach of etiquette in any language. Their next day’s starter, Brad Penny, responded.

Contained therein is a lesson in retaliation cause and effect. By the time Penny decided to exact revenge, he and the Marlins held a 3-0, seventh-inning lead. The right-hander had given up only five hits to that point, one of them, to Robin Ventura, immediately preceding Shinjo’s at-bat. With one out, Penny drilled Shinjo in the left shoulder, a message that Todd Zeile, standing on deck, understood and did not appreciate.

Later, Penny denied that there was intent behind the pitch, but said in the New York Daily News that Shinjo “did deserve to get hit after what he did last night. You don’t do that. I know he’s new over here, but he’s got some things to learn.”

Penny, too, had some things to learn, one of them being that, no matter how well one is pitching, it’s not a great idea to simultaneously and with a single pitch wake up a sleeping lion and bring the tying run to the plate.

That tying run, Zeile, planted Penny’s first pitch over Shea Stadium’s left-field fence to tie the game. As Zeile rounded third, he had some choice words for the pitcher, capped by the statement, “That’s for Shinjo.”

“If somebody thinks you retaliate for somebody swinging 3-0, you’d better learn what retaliation is,” said Mets manager Bobby Valentine after the game. “It’s no reason to hurt someone. It’s this new ‘Let’s wear a skirt’ baseball. I’ve been in the game 33 years, and I’ve never worn a skirt. Let it be known, we’ll swing 3-0 whenever we get the chance. That’s the way I was taught. The guys on the other side don’t like it, don’t get behind eight runs.”

To judge by the ensuing approach of his players, Valentine knew better. It showed a week later when, against the Phillies, New York jumped out to a 9-0 lead in the seventh inning. Shinjo swung first pitch. When center fielder Darryl Hamilton went 3-0 on reliever Jose Santiago, he watched two strikes before grounding out to the pitcher. Five days after that, the Mets jumped out to a 6-0 lead over Tampa Bay; Lenny Harris worked a 3-0 count, then watched a called strike. The day after that, holding a 9-3 lead in the seventh inning over Baltimore, Timo Perez watched a strike after going 3-0 against Chuck McElroy. The list goes on.

As for Shinjo’s lack of fluency in the American game, the Marlins weren’t the only disbelievers.

“The only (Japanese) guy who did that, swung at a 3-0 pitch, was Shinjo—everybody else, I think they know,” said Mac Suzuki, a native of Kobe, Japan, who spent the first 10 years of his professional career in America—including stints with the Mariners, Royals, Rockies and Brewers—before heading home to the Japanese league when he was 28. “They ask somebody what they can do, what they cannot do. The guys right now, guys playing in the States, they study before they come. Only Shinjo—Shinjo was kind of crazy.”

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.