Josh Harrison, Running Into the Catcher

When is the Baseline Not the Baseline? When it’s Your Team’s Catcher Blocking it, Apparently

Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina understands the concept of blocking the plate. So does his manager, Mike Matheny, a big league catcher for 13 seasons. Which is what makes their professed confusion over the propriety of a play in which Molina was bowled over during Tuesday’s 9-0 loss to Pittsburgh so confusing.

As Josh Harrison rounded third on a second-inning single by Jose Tabata, Molina positioned himself in the baseline, awaiting the throw from right fielder Carlos Beltran.

The catcher’s positioning left Harrison little choice. A slide would have put him into the catcher’s shinguards. A wide-slide-and-swipe-tag combo was also out of the question. So Harrison—only 5-foot-8, but 190 pounds—took what was clearly his best option, and lowered his shoulder.

Molina held onto the throw and tagged Harrison out, but lay in the dirt for several long moments and had to leave the game. (Afterward, his back, shoulder and neck were sore, but he reported no concussion symptoms. Watch the play here.)

A clean, legal play resulted in an out on the basepaths. This didn’t stop Cardinals pitcher Jake Westbrookfrom meting out retaliation in the bottom of the fifth. A 3-0 Pirates lead coming into the frame had grown to 5-0 courtesy of four straight hits to open the inning, and Westbrook faced a first-and-third situation with Harrison at the plate. With second base open and the pitcher frustrated, he acted, drilling the batter in the leg. (Watch it here.)

Plate ump Adrian Johnson showed an unfortunately quick trigger, immediately warning both benches—a decision that elicited an anmiated conversation with infuriated Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle, whose team had been stripped of an opportunity to respond to what had effectively been the first shot fired.

A well-blocked plate.

“A baseball play was made at home plate,” he said after the game in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “They decided to pitch Josh Harrison inside and tight. That’s a baseball play. What I was disappointed in is we didn’t have an opportunity to make a baseball play. If (Johnson) thought there was intent to hit him, throw the pitcher out and let’s move on.”

Had Molina given Harrison a lane to the plate—like the one Buster Posey gave to Scott Cousins last season when he was nonetheless knocked over and out for the year—St. Louis would have had a legitimate gripe. As it is, their confused post-game comments seemed unusually pointed. A sampling, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

  • Molina: “I would love for him to slide, but this is baseball. It’s one of those things that is going to happen.”
  • Matheny, on the legitimacy of the play: “What do you mean by legitimate? Everybody has the option to slide. He had an option to slide and he didn’t.”
  • Unnamed Cardinals player: “He probably would have been safe if he had slid. That was not the play.”
  • Carlos Beltran: “A runner has a choice — to slide to home plate or hit the catcher. . . . It’s not a dirty play, but, like I say, you have the choice. Go for the base or try to hit the guy.”

Beltran made the point perfectly, only in reverse. By positioning himself where he did, Molina left Harrison no choice about what to do. The only way to get to the plate was through the catcher.

“When I was about (30 feet) from the plate, I saw him slide his feet back,” said Harrison. “The whole plate was blocked; there was no way to slide around him.”

Perhaps the Cardinals’ players were covering for Westbrook, who likely acted on his own. Maybe they really meant it. Either way, Johnson’s warning delayed until today—the final game between the teams this season—any response for which the Pirates may have opted. If matters are to be further settled, it will happen tonight.