Gamesmanship

Soto Shuffles His Way Into Game 1 Controversy

In baseball, the lights shine brightest during October. Those who embrace that notion are already halfway to stardom.

In that vein, anybody in St. Louis who hadn’t heard of Juan Soto before the NLCS kicked off last night sure as shootin’ knows who he is now.

Soto went a quiet 1-for-5 with two strikeouts against the Cardinals in Washington’s 2-0 Game 1 victory, so it wasn’t his play that turned heads at Busch Stadium. It was what he did between plays that drew ire.  

In Washington, they call it the “Soto shuffle”—a between-pitches routine in which the hitter squats, scrapes his feet through the box and shimmies his shoulders in a way that falls someplace between a samba and performance art. He will occasionally lick his lips and adjust his cup, the latter tending to particularly rankle given that he undertakes the entire affair while staring down the pitcher—some of whom tend to take exception.

Last night, that was St. Louis’ Miles Mikolas.

There are pitchers for whom such a display—and let’s be fair here: that was the Soto Shuffle on steroids—might inspire a retaliatory fastball. Whether Mikolas is among their ranks has yet to be seen, as, nursing a one-run deficit, the right-hander had no wiggle room with which to yield a free baserunner to the opposition. Instead, after wriggling out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth inning, he grabbed his crotch right back at Soto.

Soto has said that his batter’s box choreography helps him synch his timing. Indeed, he did it against Milwaukee’s Josh Hader in the wild-card game, just before sealing Washington’s 4-3 win with a three-run single in the ninth. Then again, last week he also said that “I like to get in the minds of the pitchers, because sometimes they get scared.” Gamesmanship at its finest.

After the game, Mikolas laughed off Soto’s act, saying in a Washington Post report that “I was just having fun,” while adding that Soto is a great hitter, “and great hitters have routines.”

“That’s part of his routine,” he said, “his shtick.”

In the Nationals clubhouse, Soto took a similar tack, saying, “He got me out so he can do whatever he wants. … I’m just going to laugh about it.”

The thing is, the Cardinals—team and fans alike—hew toward traditionalism. Showboating has no place in their ballpark (with a few notable exceptions). Just last week, closer Carlos Martinez got into it with Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr. over the hitter’s celebratory practices. Hell, Cards catcher Yadi Molina has already disparaged Soto this season for taking too much time between pitches. Their fans offered requisite verbal confirmation of this displeasure, raining boos down upon Soto.

Even Soto’s own manager, Dave Martinez—something of a traditionalist himself—stumbled when asked about the player’s routine, saying in the Post: “I thought, you know . . . it’s a little, you know . . .”

At that point, Martinez quickly shifted into manager mode, where protecting his players becomes a priority and his feelings about the Soto shuffle take a distant backseat to making sure its progenitor is in a proper place to give his best possible performance. If that means harboring the occasional unseemly display, so be it.

“After talking to him and watching him, it’s a routine that he uses to get to the next pitch,” Martinez continued. “I mean, when you talk to him he really feels like that’s his batter’s box, he owns that batter’s box. And when he does that, it’s basically just saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to get back in here and I’m going to get ready to hit the next pitch.’ ”

As noted in the Post, last season Soto did something similar to Aníbal Sánchez, then pitching for the Braves. Sánchez, who can freely talk about it now that he’s Soto’s teammate in Washington, said that he’d never seen anything like it in his 13 years as a big leaguer. “I’m like, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” Sánchez said. “I thought this guy was going to fight with me. It was kind of funny to me at that point.”

Sánchez, however, handled it perfectly, being more amused by it than anything else. Soto ended up going 0-for-6 against him across three games.

He also went 0-for-3 with a strikeout against Mikolas. Perhaps the rest of the Cardinals staff has something to learn from their interaction.

Gamesmanship

Next-Level Trolling, Minor League Baseball-Style

Give it up for the Stockton Ports of the Single-A California League, who have taken opponent trolling to new heights. Now, as a matter of charitable pursuit, fans can choose the walk-up music for opposing batters at one of two price tiers: $5 will get your song randomly assigned to an opposing batter, while for $10 you can choose which lucky player gets to hear your personally curated tune.

Next time you’re in Stockton, bring a sawbuck to the yard and have yourself a time.

 

Cheating, Gamesmanship

Baez’s Attempt To Hug It Out Almost Saved Chicago’s Season

Javy hugs

As the game wore through extra innings last night in Chicago, the Cubs grew increasingly desperate to score. They’d left the winning run stranded at third in the eighth, and had another runner in the ninth they could not advance.

Then, with one out in the 11th, with Javy Baez at second and Daniel Murphy at first, Wilson Contreras topped a grounder to Nolan Arenado at third base. It was a great chance for the rocket-armed fielder to double up the gimpy-legged Contreras—who only moments earlier had precipitated a minutes-long delay when his left calf muscle cramped—and end the inning.

Instead, Baez, baseball’s most creative player, wrapped up Arenado in a bear hug as the tag was applied. It was, on the surface, a friendly gesture, Arenado responding with a smile and a hug of his own. The idea of doubling up Contreras was lost, especially to an umpiring crew who detected no hint of malfeasance from the victim.

It made no difference in the end, as the next batter, Victor Caratini, grounded out to end the inning, and the Rockies went on to win in 13. Had Murphy ended up scoring from second, however, Baez’s hug would have gone down as an indelible moment in what would have been a Chicago victory.

I have a book about the 1981 Dodgers, called They Bled Blue, coming out next March. What jumped out to me in relation to Baez’s hug was a moment from the 1978 World Series that I describe in the introduction. The Dodgers led the series two games to one, and were ahead in Game 4, 3-1, in the sixth inning. Then the Yankees put two men on base—Thurman Munson at second and Reggie Jackson at first—against Dodgers starter Tommy John. That brought up Lou Piniella. From They Bled Blue:

Piniella tapped a humpbacked liner up the middle, which Bill Russell, moving to his left, reached in plenty of time for the putout. The shortstop, however—whose nervous glove had long belied his supreme athleticism—was coming off a season in which he’d finished third in the National League in errors. He nearly made another one here, the ball clanking off his mitt, a miscue that looked inconsequential when it rolled directly toward second base, allowing Russell to snatch it up three steps from the bag and race over to force Jackson for the inning’s second out . . . which is where things got interesting.

With Russell having been in position to catch the ball on the fly, both runners had retreated to their bases of origin. Munson, in fact, made such a belated start toward third that had the shortstop thought to reach to his right upon gathering in the loose baseball, he might well have been able to tag him then and there. Russell didn’t, of course, because there was no need: an accurate relay to first base—which the shortstop provided, firing a bullet to Steve Garvey in plenty of time to retire Piniella—would complete an inning-ending double-play. There was, however, an impediment: Jackson, having backtracked, was rooted in the baseline only steps away from first. As the throw rocketed toward its intended target, Reggie did the only thing he could to extend the inning—he leaned ever so slightly toward right field, his hip jutting out just far enough to deflect the throw, which bounced off him and toward the grandstand alongside the Yankees dugout, allowing Munson to score.

The Dodgers screamed interference. Tommy Lasorda speed-waddled onto the field, tobacco juice dribbling onto his chin as he argued at top volume with umpires Frank Pulli and Joe Brinkman. Pulli, stationed at first, later admitted that his view of the base runner had been obstructed and that he had little idea whether Jackson might have intentionally interfered with the ball. Brinkman said that he’d been looking at second base to call the force-out when the ball hit Reggie . . . or, depending on your rooting interests, when Reggie hit the ball.

The play might have been dirty, but there’s no denying that it was smart. Had Jackson done nothing, the inning would have been over. The frame would similarly have ended had Reggie been called for interference, as he should have been. As it was, though, he got away with it, allowing Munson to close New York’s deficit to 3–2, The Sporting News later calling it “one of the shrewdest and most significant plays” in World Series history. Had Jackson not done what he did, Tommy John—whose previous two starts were a four-hit shutout over Philadelphia in the National League Championship Series and LA’s victory over the Yankees in the first game of the World Series—would have been in the middle of another four-hitter, trying to protect a two-run lead in the late innings. Instead, with the Dodgers clinging to a one-run advantage, Lasorda pulled the left-hander after Paul Blair’s leadoff single in the eighth. Two batters later, reliever Terry Forster allowed a game-tying double to Munson, and the game went to extra innings. New York won it in the 10th, and the Dodgers, instead of being one win from a Series victory, found things knotted at two games apiece. It wrecked them.

The Yankees, of course, went on to win that World Series. Things didn’t work out so well for Baez, but it is likely that his hug was specifically intended to curtail the possibility of Aranado ending the inning with a double-play. If that’s the case, one could—as with Reggie, 40 years earlier— fault his sense of fair play. Just like Reggie, of course, Baez’s was a winning proposition with no attendant downside, and the possible upside of being a game-winner.

There’s a reason he’s one of the savviest players in baseball.

Deke Appropriately, Deking

Pedro Florimon, Master Magician, Offers Sleight-Of-Hand Clinic to Trea Turner

Florimon deke

Dekes—fielders making runners think that something is happening on the field that’s not actually happening—can be marvelous things.

In baseball’s unwritten rulebook, they are only problematic when they put somebody in danger—primarily in the form of a late phantom tag, laid down when the ball is actually someplace else, forcing a runner into a hurried and awkward slide.

Barring that, however, the play can be a wonder to behold. Take, for example, Philadelphia shortstop Pedro Florimon, who last Saturday retired Trea Turner with some delightful trickery. The Nationals were down 3-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning when Turner drew a leadoff walk and, on the first pitch to the next batter, Matt Wieters, took off for second.

The trouble for Turner was that Wieters popped the ball up to second base. The other trouble for Turner was that he never peeked toward the plate to gauge what was happening. Thus, when Florimon drifted to the bag as if to receive a throw from catcher Andrew Knapp, Turner had little reason to disbelieve that Florimon was actually receiving a throw from catcher Andrew Knapp. The shortstop even punctuated the act by laying a tag upon the unsuspecting baserunner as he stood atop the bag.

Second baseman Cesar Hernandez, meanwhile, was able to complete the easiest double-play of his life, finishing the play while Turner was still in a state of puzzlement at second. (Watch the whole thing here.)

“Usually, I hear the ball off the bat, so a lot of times if I hear it, I’ll look up,” Turner said after the game in a Washington Post report. “I didn’t hear it that time.”

It is the responsibility of every baserunner to have a handle on whatever situation he finds himself in. Failure to glance plateward cost Lonnie Smith in the most famous deke of modern times, in the 1991 World Series, and it cost Turner last weekend.

It’s likely not a mistake he’ll ever make a second time.

Gamesmanship, Sign stealing

Baez Blocks Basepath, Stuns Suspected Sign Stealer

Baez blocks

Javier Baez has made inventive baseball a hallmark of his short career. Usually, this involves doing wondrous things with his glove. On Sunday it was by using his head in an especially curious way. In the era of the defensive overshift, this was maybe the overshiftiest move of all.

In the third inning of a game in Colorado, Baez suspected that DJ LeMahieu—the runner at second base—was relaying signs to the hitter, Nolan Arenado. Usually, this isn’t much of a problem; signs are easy to change once such suspicions arise, and a brief word to the suspected thief almost inevitably curtails the activity, at least for a while.

Baez, however, took another tack, literally positioning himself between runner and plate while catcher Victor Caratini was dropping down signals, before bouncing back to his regular spot prior to the pitch. The idea was to block LeMahieu’s view. Unsurprisingly, LeMahieu wasn’t too thrilled with the idea, especially after Baez began talking loudly about it after Arenado struck out.

“I said, ‘See the difference when they don’t know the signs,’ ” Baez recalled after the game, in a Chicago Tribune report, “and then [LeMahieu] said something,” Baez said. “He told me, ‘Then change the signs.’ ” Umpire Vic Carapazza eventually had to step in to calm things down.

The Cubs had been wondering about potential sign theft since the fifth inning of Saturday’s game, when the Rockies scored five runs on four two-out hits, every one of them coming with a runner at second.

There are a couple of things at play here. One is that this kind of thing goes on all the time. Whether LeMahieu was signaling pitch type or location—or even if he wasn’t signaling anything at all—standard procedure for the Cubs would simply have been to switch things up. It’s not a complicated process; the only thing that needs to change is the indicator—the sign telling the pitcher that the next sign is the one that counts—which can be done between every pitch if need be. Hell, teams can base signs on the count (on a 3-1 pitch, the fourth sign is live), the score or the inning. Catchers can switch to pumps, with the number of signs given being the key, not the signs themselves. Hell, during Nolan Ryan’s second no-hitter, he didn’t take any signs at all. Suspecting the opposing Tigers of foul play before the game even began, he called his own pitches for catcher Art Kusnyer, touching the back of his cap for a fastball, and the brim for  a curve.

The other thing to consider is simple decorum. By positioning himself between LeMahieu and the plate, Baez may have been able to interfere with some sign pilfering (though even that rationale is suspect given that the runner was four inches taller and could shift in either direction for a better view), but he also interfered with the playing of actual baseball. Jimmy Piersall was once tossed from a game for running back and forth while playing in the outfield as a ploy to distract Ted Williams at the plate. Was this so different?

Ultimately, the runner’s behavior was well within baseball norms. Baez’s was not. It’s not against the rules, as far as I can tell. Rule 6.04(c) states, “No fielder shall take a position in the batter’s line of vision, and with deliberate unsportsmanlike intent, act in a manner to distract the batter.” Though there’s nothing similar in play as pertains to baserunners, Baez’s tactics ran counter to the spirit of sportsmanship. There are countless other ways to deal with sign thieves that don’t interfere with the playing of actual baseball.

Next time this happens, Baez should avail himself of any, or all, of them.