The primary issue for major league hitters who have been hit by a pitch is determining intent. It’s not uncommon for pitchers who work inside to accidentally “let one slip”—as they like to say in their own defense—and inadvertently drill the batter.
It’s a risk that comes with the job description.
The trick is figuring out when this is not the case, and when hitting a guy was exactly what the pitcher had in mind.
Hitters have all sorts of methods for this, from gauging arm angle (“When guys are throwing regular pitches, they throw toward the center of the plate,” said Oscar Gamble, “but when they’re throwing at you, their arm comes straight toward you”) to identifying how they track their target before they release the pitch (“He stares right at you,” said Randy Knorr, “and looks where he’s going to throw it”).
“Sure, you can tell,” said Andy Van Slyke. “Body language will tell you, more than anything else. . . . Sometimes (the situation) merits your being drilled, sometimes it doesn’t. You’re talking about arbitrary things in people’s minds. In one person’s mind it’s deserved, and in the other guy’s mind it’s not.”
Which is why understanding the game situation is so important. If there are two outs and nobody on base, and one of the pitcher’s teammates has recently been drilled, chances are good that he meant it.
All of which helps make Josh Beckett’s outing against the Yankees last week so confusing.
In the sixth inning of Friday’s game, Beckett—who had utterly dominated New York early, striking out five of the first six hitters he faced—came unraveled. After Alex Rodriguez’s leadoff double, Beckett drilled Robinson Cano in the knee so hard that “it hurt the witnesses in the press box,” according to ESPN’s Wallace Matthews.
It went downhill from there.
A wild pitch advanced the runners and frustrated Beckett. Two walks (one intentional, the other of which drove in a run) and a single over the course of the next three hitters extended New York’s lead to 5-1.
Beckett was so off—and so dangerous—that he crossed up his own catcher, Jason Varitek, with a 92 mph cutter, hitting him in the left forearm and knocking him out of the game.
The bases were loaded for Derek Jeter and there was still only one out.
In the big picture, the Red Sox are having the type of season for which they were known before they recently starting winning championships, disappointing in virtually every facet. Beckett has served as the poster boy for this failure, sporting a 6.31 ERA coming into Friday’s game (having given up eight earned runs in three innings two games earlier), while winning only one of his six starts.
If he wasn’t a bundle of frustration by the time he faced Jeter, he should have been.
All of which led to the questions of motivation when he buried his first pitch into Jeter’s shoulder blade.
A pitcher wouldn’t intentionally hit a guy with the bases loaded, would he?
Maybe. Don Drysdale did. In 1962, he drilled St. Louis outfielder Curt Flood—who was six-for-his-last-12 against the pitcher—with three runners on board. Drysdale had already allowed four runs to that point in the game, and felt he had more to gain from the message pitch than he lost with the additional run.
It’s not often that the media spends a weekend guessing the intent behind a pitch that drives in a run by hitting a guy, but this is precisely what happened—especially in light of the fact that Beckett also pitched dangerously inside to Francisco Cervelli (two batters before Jeter) and Mark Teixeira (two batters after Jeter), both with the bases loaded.
(“He just went haywire,” reported the Hartford Courant. Wrote the New York Post, “It sure looked like Beckett was hitting Yankees on purpose.”)
For some pitchers, a lost cause can spur emotions. By the time Teixeira stepped to the plate, the Yankees had scored four runs in the frame and led 7-1; Beckett had retired just one of the eight hitters he’d faced.
He was done no matter what happened.
After he hit Jeter, speculation raged, and although the Yankees—C.C. Sabathia and Rodriguez notably among them—gathered on the top step to berate Beckett at top volume, they said all the right things after the game.
Joe Girardi: “He just seemed to lose command.”
Phil Hughes, who started the game for New York: “The purpose was going inside, I assume, and sometimes it gets away from you.”
Jeter: “No one hits anyone with the bases loaded.”
They said this, of course, because savvy big leaguers hardly want to incite the opposition—or the commissioner—should retribution of their own be forthcoming. Hughes went so far as to allege that “there was nothing that called for retaliation tonight.”
But when umpiring crew chief Tim McClelland asserted that Saturday’s game would commence without warnings, that was all Sabathia—that day’s starter—needed.
It’s not like it was difficult to spot in advance. “If and when Dustin Pedroia or Kevin Youkilis gets drilled by CC Sabathia this afternoon, they’ll have Josh Beckett to thank,” wrote John Tomase in the Boston Herald’s game preview.
It was, in fact, Pedroia who got it, in the second inning, with two out and nobody on. By that point, it didn’t matter what Beckett had intended; the damage had been done and a response was necessary. The retaliation was a departure from the Joe Torre era in New York, when such events came with resounding infrequency.
“It’s not even the point whether it was intentional or not,” Nick Swisher told the New York Daily News. “The point is that we’ve got each other’s backs, and we’re going to let you know about it.”
“It means a lot to the guys in here,” added an anonymous Yankee.
After the game, Sabathia took the standard tack of calling the pitch a fastball “that got away,” ending his portion of the festivities.
It should end it for the Red Sox, as well. We’ll know for sure when the teams meet again on Monday.