Did A.J. Pierzynski flop? Of course A.J. Pierzynski flopped. Demean the guy’s character all you want, say that his motivation is outside the boundaries of baseball normalcy, but never say that this man isn’t at all times thinking about ways he could help his team.
The above image, taken during the second inning of Wednesday’s Game 4 of the NLCS, shows the catcher at his evil best. With Hunter Pence on first base and one out, the pitch bounced away from Pierzynski, and Pence advanced to second. The catcher, however, was cagey enough to note that the fortuitously timed backswing of Travis Ishikawa, which clipped him as he sprung up to corral the loose ball, could actually work to his advantage. The blow wasn’t hard enough to impede his progress, but after one step it occurred to him that falling to the ground might benefit his cause.
So Pierzynski tumbled onto his backside, flipping off his mask and helmet in the process in what looked like a belated attempt to make it appear as if they had been knocked off by Ishikawa. What he wanted: Plate ump Mark Carlson to decide that Pierzynski’s path to the ball had been impeded, rule batter’s interference, and send Pence back to first. What he got: Exactly that.
Shrewd. This is the guy who runs across the pitcher’s mound after being retired on the basepaths, just to try distracting the pitcher a smidge. He’ll intentionally get hit by a pitch and then bark at the pitcher, only to rile him up. He’ll act like he was hit by a pitch that didn’t hit himduring a no-hitter. If there’s immediate benefit, great, but one gets the idea from looking at Pierzynski’s overall body of work that the guy’s primary goal is to needle his way under the skin of every one of his opponents until they’re thinking about what an asshole he is instead of paying attention to their jobs.
Still, who but an incredibly aware and overly wily player could even consider pulling off something like this, from the 2005 ALCS?:
Ultimately, it all makes Pierzynski an asset to whatever team he’s on, for reasons well beyond his ability to play baseball. There’s a reason that his former manager, Ozzie Guillen, once said, “If you play against him, you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less.” Hate him all you want, but give the guy some credit.
Don’t change anything during the course of a no-hitter. By now, that much should be obvious. Players don’t change spots on the bench between innings. Managers don’t make unnecessary substitutions (except for those who do). The mere appearance of a reliever warming up in the bullpen can be enough to send the superstitious into fits of nervous twitching.
Monday, however, brought us something entirely new in the realm of not mixing things up, and it only makes sense that the delivery person was A.J. Pierzynski.
Yu Darvish, working on a perfect game in the sixth, threw a 2-2 breaking ball to Jonathan Villar, which Pierzynski thought was strike three, but which plate ump Ron Kulpa judged to be too low. The fact that the catcher leapt from his crouch and took a step toward the dugout before hearing Kulpa’s ruling earned him no favors.
Darvish walked Villar on the next pitch, giving the Astros their first baserunner, and Pierzynski was none too pleased. After the game, Kulpa explained what happened. As reported by MLB.com:
“Pierzynski didn’t like the pitch that I [called for a ball]. We had words about the [2-2] pitch. And then [Darvish] walked [Villar] on the very next pitch and [Pierzynski] continued to argue on the pitch before. And so he got ejected.” (Watch it here.)
Talk about changing things up. Game action was interrupted while Ron Washington came out to argue and backup catcher Geovany Soto raced to put on his gear. Suddenly Darvish was throwing to a different target. The right-hander denied that any of this had to do with the home run he gave up to catcher Carlos Corporan two frames later (indeed, Soto has caught 10 of Darvish’s 22 starts this season, so lack of familiarity is not a problem), but history is not on his side: Only twice has a pitcher thrown to more than one catcher during the course of a complete-game no-hitter—Ken Holtzman in 1969 and Larry Corcoran in 1880.
The question now becomes one of blame. Did Kulpa have too quick a trigger finger, especially considering the enormity of the situation? Should Pierzynski have played it cooler, knowing what was at stake?
The answer to both questions is a resounding yes. Had either of them shown just a skosh more restraint, it’s possible that the baseball world would be celebrating Darvish right now even more than it already is.
“Absolutely, you feel bad for the guy,” said Pierzynski afterward. “You feel bad for the pitcher and you feel bad for everybody associated with it. Because they don’t happen a lot and when you get that close, you really want to try to get them done. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.”
(For what it’s worth, Darvish came within one batter of a perfect game at the same ballpark in April. Some feel he was jinxed in that one, too.)
It didn’t take long—one at-bat, as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning Wednesday—for the A.J. Pierzynski roadshow, Texas Rangers edition, to roar to life.
After eight seasons with the White Sox, Pierzynski signed with Texas during the off-season, and in facing his old team for the first time was plunked on the right elbow by ex-teammate Addison Reed. Pierzynski didn’t much try to avoid it (indeed, he threw his elbow into it), and was saved from significant discomfort by the pad he was wearing. Reed appeared upset with himself from the moment it became apparent that pitch would connect with batter.
None of it mattered. The catcher started barking toward the mound as he trotted to first, clearly upset with the development. (Watch it here.)
“I was mad,” Piezynski said in a Chicago Tribune account. “(Reed) threw it up and in and shoulder high. It’s fine if you’re going to pitch me in, but don’t come up and in, shoulder high.” (Reed, White Sox manager Robin Ventura and catcher Tyler Flowers all offered standard denials of intent.)
Ultimately it made no difference, coming as it did with two outs in the ninth. Pierzynski did not score, and Chicago won, 5-2. The real reason any of this is of interest is that it’s A.J. Pierzynski, the man about whom his former White Sox manager, Ozzie Guillen, famously said, “If you play against him, you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less.”
In honor of A.J. being A.J., I offer a selection from the original draft of The Baseball Codes, which did not make it into the final edit. It involves Pierzynski, some of the reasons why opposing players hate him, and another pitcher named Reed.
When Pierzynski was catching for San Francisco in 2004, the Giants built a 9-2 lead in the eighth inning of a game at Colorado. With the bases loaded and two out, Pierzynski poked his elbow pad into the path of a Steve Reed fastball, taking a dubious hit-by-pitch and driving in what would be the first of six runs in the inning that turned a Giants romp into a full-fledged blowout. Reed was incensed, saying later that the pitch would have been a strike had the Giants catcher not gotten in its way. There was even some debate as to whether it hit Pierzynski at all, with Reed and Rockies catcher Charles Johnson denying there was contact, and Pierzynski himself going so far as to say he never felt it hit him.
But the only opinion that mattered was that of plate umpire Bruce Dreckman, and when Dreckman sent Pierzynski to first, Reed exploded. He was thrown out of the game during the ensuing argument.
Pierzynski knew he had done wrong—willingly getting hit by a pitch that should not have hit him, in a game in which an extra run did not matter—and that Reed had been ejected as a result. He also knew that there would be a price to pay down the road.
With the game well in hand, Giants manager Felipe Alou offered to pull Pierzynski and save him from imminent retaliatory damage. The catcher, however, understood that if he didn’t get it that day, he’d be waiting—uncomfortably—until the time that the Rockies had a chance to even the score. So he demurred, opting get it over with quickly.
Trouble was, when Pierzynski came to bat in the ninth inning, it was against right-hander Allan Simpson, pitching in just his eighth major league game. With a 7.36 ERA, Simpson was far less worried about sticking up for his teammates than he was about simply getting out of the inning with a minimum of damage. (With Reed in the clubhouse, Simpson may not even have been briefed about Pierzynski’s lack of propriety, or the appropriate response.)
Seeing a pitch to hit, Pierzynski doubled in the Giants’ 16th and final run of the game.
The catcher didn’t start the next day, the final game of the series, and by the time he made a ninth-inning appearance as a pinch-hitter, the 7-5 score was too close for Rockies pitcher Marc Kroon to take any action. (Also, because Pierzynski hadn’t been scheduled to hit, Rockies management may not have given advance notice to Kroon about what they’d like him to do.)
When the teams faced each other a month later, however, Rockies starter Aaron Cook wasted no time. When Pierzynski stepped to the plate for his first at bat, Colorado already held a 6-0 lead, and with little potential downside to allowing an extra baserunner, Cook hit Pierzynski in the leg with his second pitch.
Pierzynski may be insufferable, but he is also among the game’s wiliest players. He knew what was happening and why in 1992, and he likely knew it again on Wednesday. He may also be the only man in baseball to feign annoyance at an incidental action on the chance that such a precedent could help him or his team in the future.
Unless Pierzynski or somebody on the White Sox cares to discuss Wednesday’s events, of course, we’ll never know. The next time he faces Addison Reed, however, it seems likely that Wednesday’s events will be somewhere in the pitcher’s mind.
What’s being talked about is the spectacle. What the spectacle entails is raw, flashing emotion, unconstrained by things like logic or reason. The emotion’s place of origin was the mouth of Ken Harrelson, White Sox broadcaster. Yesterday, it absolutely captivated the baseball-viewing public.
What are you doing? He threw him out of the ballgame? You’ve got to be bleeping me. What in the hell are you doing? What are you doing, Wegner?
The money shot involves Harrelson’s homer-centric howls, directed at plate ump Mark Wegner in response to White Sox starter Jose Quintana’s fourth-inning ejection, after the left-hander threw a pitch behind Tampa Bay’s Ben Zobrist. Like many money shots, of course, it feels kind of empty without some relevant prelude to bring it alive.
Why, for instance was Hawk so riled up?
The answer is somewhat involved, and begins in the sixth inning of Tuesday’s game, also between the White Sox and Rays. A.J. Pierzynski, at first base with one out, was forced at second on a ground ball by Dayan Viciedo. It’s standard procedure for runners in that situation to go in hard at second, trying to prevent a double play. Pierzynski, however, went in late and spikes high, spearing second baseman Zobrist well behind the bag.
“There was no chance for a throw to first base, and he came way over the bag to try and get me,” said Zobrist. “I don’t know what his motivation was in doing that.”
The two shared some choice sentiments after the play, but each eventually went peaceably on his way, and the issue appeared to die there. Pierzynski batted three more times in the game, once with nobody on and two out, another time as the leadoff hitter while his team held a 6-2 lead, and wasn’t so much as brushed back.
You gotta be kiddin’ me. That is so bad. That is absolutely brutal. That is unbelievable. I’ll tell you what—they have got to start making guys be accountable.
Given an evening to think it over, however, the Rays apparently decided that they wanted a piece of Pierzynski after all. In the third inning Wednesday, with one out and first base open, Rays starter Alex Cobb drilled the catcher in the right shoulder blade. According to the Code, Pierzynski offered cause, Cobb retorted with effect, and things should have ended right there.
Except that they didn’t. The next time Zobrist came to the plate—six batters after Pierzynski was hit—Quintana threw his first pitch so far behind him that Zobrist didn’t even have to move his feet to avoid it. This is where Wegner delivered ejections—one each for Quintana and manager Robin Ventura—and Harrelson temporarily lost control of his senses. (Watch it here.)
That is totally absurd! That just tells you—here’s an umpire in the American League that knows nothing about the game of baseball. That’s unbelievable.
When it comes to bloviation such as Harrelson’s, details matter. And in this case, the details validate Wegner. Quintana was making just his second career start, and by appearances had been coached in his actions. Prior to the pitch, Pierzynski set up almost mindlessly over the middle of the plate, and as the fastball sailed wildly inside, the catcher didn’t so much as make a stab at it—almost as if he knew in advance where it was headed. Pitchers usually miss by inches; Quintana’s shot was close to four feet from Pierzynski’s target. Zobrist called it “painfully obvious” in a Tampa Bay Times account.
Ventura expressed shock at the ejection, less for the causality than the lack of warning from Wegner. Quintana offered some odd detail about Pierzynski having changed signs on him and not wanting to mix things up. Pierzynski said he had set up away, but Quintana threw it in. Difficult as it is to believe them, at least it’s the type of thing they’re supposed to say.
Ultimately, the White Sox had taken an extra, unnecessary shot, and a warning from Wegner at that point would have validated their strategy, giving them a freebie by stifling the Rays.
They have got to do something about this, I’ll tell you. They have got some guys in this league who have no business umpiring. They have no business umpiring because they don’t know what the baseball is about. And he is one of them. . . . He ought to be suspended and if they want to keep him as an umpire, send him back to school and teach him what this game is about.
Even as Harrelson ranted, Zobrist simply stood in the batter’s box, a slight smile tracing his lips. It could have been relief at avoiding what might otherwise have been a painful message. Or perhaps he was delighting in the fact that Chicago would be going to its bullpen earlier than expected. Maybe it was simply that justice had been served, and he knew it.
It’s certainly more than one could say for the Hawk at that moment.
This article also appeared, in slightly different form and with an actual photo of Pierzynski’s questionable slide, at Sports Illustrated.com.