We frequently talk about baseball’s unwritten retaliation rules as having become outdated, an artifact from another era. Which is largely accurate; guys intentionally drilling each other makes less sense today than it ever has.
But set aside that construct for a moment. Today, let’s view things from the viewpoint of a struggling pitcher, desperate to prolong his time in the major leagues. Let’s view things through Sean Nolin’s eyes.
Nolin is a left-hander who prior to this season has had three cups of coffee in the big leagues, each so short that he continues to maintain his rookie status. The last of those stints came in 2015.
The six intervening years have seen two seasons wiped out by shoulder issues, and time spent in Mexico, Japan and the independent Atlantic League. Nolin began this season with the High-A Wilmington Blue Rocks, in the Washington Nationals system. He is now 31 years old.
On July 30, the Nats traded Max Scherzer to LA, Jon Lester to St. Louis and Daniel Hudson to San Diego, opening some spots on their pitching staff. Nolin made his debut for them on Aug. 12.
Sean Nolin is not anyone’s idea of a star. Before yesterday he had appeared in four games for Washington, all starts, going 0-2 with a 5.71 ERA. Whatever impression he made did not include much in the way of mound dominance.
Yesterday’s impression was different. Yesterday he defended a teammate.
Let’s go backward for a moment to Tuesday’s game against Atlanta, when Braves closer Will Smith drilled Juan Soto. Atlanta held a three-run lead with nobody on and one out in the ninth when it happened, and there’s enough history between the two to make it appear intentional.
In August of last season, Smith was taking his warm-up tosses after entering in the middle of the eighth inning, when Soto, the on-deck hitter, sidled behind the plate to get a better scouting angle. Smith cussed him out for it.
Soto came to bat an inning later, at which point he blasted Smith’s first pitch deep over the left-center field fence. He watched it. Then he watched the pitcher. Then Smith said something to him so unkind that Nationals manager Dave Martinez felt the need to intervene.
Since then, Smith has faced Soto six times. The first five came in games Atlanta led by two runs or fewer. On Tuesday the margin was three—enough wiggle room for the pitcher to take some liberties. With his second pitch, he drilled Soto in the small of the back.
Literally one pitch later the game was over, pushing Washington’s response, should they choose to make one, to yesterday. The man to shoulder that burden: Sean Nolin.
There is nothing to indicate that Nolin was ordered by management to take action. Indeed, such a thing is quite rare in the modern game. There is everything to indicate that Nolin had much more to gain by standing up for his young teammate than he had to lose by risking an early ejection.
Sure enough, in the first inning, Nolin—playing by the ages-old adage, “You drill my No. 3 hitter, I’ll drill your No. 3 hitter”—threw his first pitch to Freddy Freeman behind the hitter’s back. With his second pitch he drilled him, and was subsequently ejected.
There’s an essay to be written about the part of baseball’s code that gives Nolin one chance to even the score, and that once he’d missed Freeman accounts should have been considered settled. (Indeed, Freeman said later that he told plate ump Lance Barksdale, “That’s all he gets,” after the first pitch missed.) There’s also one about the class Freeman showed by going to the Washington dugout to talk things over with Martinez, and about how he and Soto took their drillings with grace. Those aren’t this essay, though.
This essay is about the clubhouse standing of a middle-aged man looking to do whatever he can to stick around the big leagues for as long as possible. Nolin’s baseball ability has proven to be a marginal commodity in this regard, placing him squarely inside the realm of ballplayers for whom being a good clubhouse guy might carry outsized importance when it comes to securing his next contract.
In this age of fungible pitching staffs, where the bottom three guys in any bullpen are shuffled back and forth to the minors on a weekly basis, there’s value in having a reputation as somebody willing to stand up for teammates, of a proven willingness to throw the kinds of darts from which some pitchers might shy away. Bottom-of-the-rotation guys must feel the need to prove their value every day, in any way they can.
Sean Nolin knows this. He proved it yesterday. It’s strange to think that a start lasting one-third of an inning might be consequential to somebody’s career prospects, but that may well be the case here. Sean Nolin’s counting on it.