Basepath Retaliation, Collisions, Retaliation

Pittsburgh Responds To Rizzo Takeout: You Slide Into Mine, I’ll Slide Into Yours

Musgrove slides

They were back at it in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, the Cubs and Pirates coming to a head over the second questionable slide in a three-game span. This time it was the Pirates hitting the dirt, as pitcher Joe Musgrove powered into second with a blatantly late slide in an effort to disrupt a double play. (Watch it here.)

This time it was Javy Baez on the receiving end, and though the slide did no damage, he wasn’t pleased. Musgrove leaped so late that he landed virtually atop the bag, his momentum carrying him straight past it. In so doing he violated two of the four tenets of Rule 6.01(j), which we’ve heard an awful lot about recently. It reads:

 

If a runner does not engage in a bona fide slide, and initiates (or attempts to make) contact with the fielder for the purpose of breaking up a double play, he should be called for interference under this Rule 6.01. A “bona fide slide” for purposes of Rule 6.01 occurs when the runner: (1) begins his slide (i.e., makes contact with the ground) before reaching the base; (2) is able and attempts to reach the base with his hand or foot; (3) is able and attempts to remain on the base (except home plate) after completion of the slide; and (4) slides within reach of the base without changing his pathway for the purpose of initiating contact with a fielder.

 

Baez knew that Musgrove’s slide wasn’t by the book, and as the pitcher started back toward Pittsburgh’s dugout, let him know about it. Things hardly grew heated—Baez gently put a hand on the Musgrove’s hip in a “there, there” kind of way—and though benches cleared, players never came close to fighting.

 

For a blog about unwritten rules, we’ve sure spent a lot of time recently on the written ones. Still, there’s an awful lot of subtext here. Musgrove’s slide was about much more than hard-nosed baseball—it was about retaliation for Anthony Rizzo’s disputed takeout of Pittsburgh catcher Elias Diaz on Monday. Musgrove admitted as much, telling reporters after the game: “I was trying to go in hard like their guy did. [Baez] should’ve got out of the way, I guess.”

Not enough? The pitcher elaborated.

“We’re not trying to fight anybody here,” he said in an MLB.com report. “We’re not trying to cause any problems, but you blindside our catcher when he’s got no chance to defend himself … That’s something that I feel like is part of baseball. I don’t think he was happy that I went after their guy or anything like that, but yeah, you try to pick up your teammates where you can. I didn’t hurt him. I easily could have made a dirty slide, but I feel like I made a clean slide and went in hard.”

It’s a simple message. The cleanliness of Musgrove’s slide is up for debate, but his claims about not wanting to injure anybody are valid. Baez himself believed them, telling reporters after the game: “I’m not saying it was a bad slide, but he just went hard. I asked him, ‘What was that about?’ He said, ‘Sorry,’ and the conversation was over.”

Musgrove sent a message, to the Cubs and his own team alike, that plays like Rizzo’s will be answered. It was a canny decision. As a pitcher, Musgrove easily could have conveyed the sentiment with a message pitch, but by going slide-for-slide, he was able to provide tangible support for his teammates in an aboveboard fashion.

Musgrove—a third-year pitcher trying to establish himself after coming over from Houston in the Gerrit Cole trade—earned a measure of clubhouse standing with seven innings of one-run ball on Wednesday. He may have earned even more with his slide.

Basepath Retaliation, Jose Bautista, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Does Anybody Even Know What Baseball’s Unwritten Rules Are, Anymore?

We’ll get to questions about propriety and merit and the very nature of baseball’s unwritten rules in good time.

First, though, why’d the Rangers wait so long to do it?

Before the season started, the enduring questions regarding the rivalry between Texas and the Blue Jays had to do with the Rangers’ response to Jose Bautista’s world-beating bat flip during the teams’ ALDS showdown last October, and whether retaliation was imminent.

Matters seemed to be settled after the teams went an entire series at Toronto’s Rogers Centre in early May without so much as a peep. In the series finale, Bautista came to bat—twice—with his team leading 11-1. Let sit for a moment whether retaliation was even merited; if ever there was a place to enact it, it was right there, with no concern about an extra baserunner affecting the game’s outcome.

Bautista emerged unscathed. That should have closed the book on the incident. Should have, but didn’t.

On Sunday, Rangers reliever Matt Bush—making only his second big league appearance after a decade-long career nosedive—may have been trying to earn credibility points with his new teammates when he planted a fastball into Bautista’s ribcage.

It makes little sense why that pitch would bear any degree of intent. Texas had its chances back in Toronto. Bush was not with the Rangers at the time of Bautista’s perceived slight. The score was 7-6, and Bautista, leading off the top of the eighth, represented the tying run. And yet.

It was the final meeting of the season between the teams, and likely Bautista’s final at-bat of the game. Drilling him then left virtually no chance for recourse. “To me, it was gutless,” said Jays manager John Gibbons afterward, in an ESPN report. “The other 29 teams, they come at you right away, but to wait until the end, it just sort of tells you something.”

At that point, Bautista’s primary tool was the one he ended up using: a message-laden slide.

Forced to run by Justin Smoak’s grounder, Bautista launched himself late, at the legs of second baseman Rougned Odor. It was textbook, Bautista landing on the base instead of in front of it, undercutting Odor’s feet. According to the Code, it was clean—spikes down and centered. A million guys have made a million similar retaliatory slides over the years, the vast majority of which have been accepted by the opposition as nothing more than the price of doing business.

We are, however, in a new era, even beyond the rise of the Let’s Make Baseball Fun Again generation. It is a time of basepath sanity, where fielders’ safety is the subject of rulebook legislation. Bautista’s slide had nothing to do with fielders’ safety.

It probably didn’t matter either way to Odor, who would likely have come up swinging, regardless.

The rest of the story involves details, mostly:

  • Bautista absorbed a solid right hook from Odor, definitely in the 99th percentile of effective baseball punches, but still managed to keep his feet.
  • It turns out that Odor is quietly (or not so quietly) one of the premiere red-asses in the game.
  • Ejections for Bautista, Odor, Josh Donaldson, and Rangers coach Steve Bueschele.
  • Bush was allowed to remain in the game, but when asked afterward about the pitch in question, offered a telling no-comment.
  • Toronto exacted retaliation of its own in the bottom half of the inning with the time-tested tactic of drilling Bautista’s counterpart on the Rangers, Prince Fielder. Again the benches emptied, though no punches were thrown.
  • Subsequent ejections for Toronto pitcher Jesse Chavez and coach DeMarlo Hale.

In the aftermath of it all, we’re left with numerous questions. Most pertinent to this space has to do with the unwritten rules themselves. Although Bautista’s slide fell well within the boundaries of traditional Code tactics, it’s difficult to tell anymore whether traditional Code tactics—especially as they pertain to takeout slides—are even viable. Before, it was primarily middle infielders who didn’t appreciate them. Now, the league office has officially taken steps to legislate them out of the game. This likely means that baserunners are going to have to find new methods of conveying their grievances … or, more pragmatically, will have to learn to get over their grievances more quietly.

There’s also a bit of hypocrisy at hand. In the game’s aftermath, Bautista unloaded with both barrels at Rangers management, saying in the Toronto Star that “It shows a little bit of the apparent lack of leadership that they have over there when it comes to playing baseball the right way.”

Only last October, Bautista himself sparked a play-the-right-way controversy, only then he was on the other side of the debate, baseball traditionalists decrying his bat flip and its ensuing acclaim. To play both sides like that—to demand propriety only when it suits you—seems disingenuous.

There is, however, more to it. “Baseball plays are supposed to be taken care of by baseball plays,” Bautista also said yesterday. And he’s correct. A bat flip is not a baseball play. Drilling a batter is. So is taking out a fielder. The latest version of the Code mandates that non-baseball plays are largely exempt from retaliation. This is not what happened on Sunday.

Perhaps we’re facing another sea change with all of this, which is something we won’t know until we see players’ responses to coming contentions. Water has a way of finding its level.

Ultimately, amid the philosophical hand-wringing, we’re left with one primary concrete question: Why’d the Rangers wait so long to do it?

Update (5/17): Odor’s been clipped for eight games and outed as a hypocrite.

Basepath Retaliation

Takeout Order: One Second Baseman, With a Side of Sour Grapes

Desmond + GomezCarlos Gomez has taken heat in this space for everything from pimping to excessive pimping to his inability to handle criticism. Yesterday Gomez again managed to clear the bases over something he did … but this time he was in the clear. Maybe a guy’s reputation can precede him, after all.

In the eighth inning against the Nationals, Gomez was hit on the left arm by reliever Taylor Hill, making his big league debut. The next batter, Lyle Overbay, grounded a double-play ball to shortstop Ian Desmond, who tossed to second baseman Kevin Frandsen on the pivot. Frandsen just managed to get the throw off before Gomez, barreling in hard and fast, took him out with an aggressive slide. This is the kind of thing one does after one has been hit, a message to the other team that such liberties have not escaped notice.

The slide was clean. The message was sent. The inning was over.

Desmond, however, took offense. As his teammates headed toward their dugout, the shortstop stopped for a chat with an incredulous Gomez. Things got sufficiently animated for the benches to clear, though nobody came close to throwing a punch. To judge by the players on the field, Desmond was the only red ass among them. (Watch it here.)

“I just told him I didn’t agree with the way he slid into second base with a seven-run lead,” Desmond said after the game in an MLB.com report. “I’ve defended that guy in a lot of clubhouse arguments. I respect the way he plays the game, but I’ve got no respect for that. If he thinks he got drilled on purpose by our pitcher making his Major League debut … to take it out on a guy who’s grinded his butt off to make a Major League career in Kevin Frandsen … In a World Series game, you slide like that. In a seven-run-differential game, there’s no time for that.”

On that point, Desmond is nuts. Gomez was responding to being hit—a reaction that is independent of circumstance, lopsided score or not. He responded with a clean, aggressive play, in the way that baseball players have always responded to similar events with clean, aggressive plays. On the Nationals broadcast, in fact,  color man (and former player) F.P. Santangelo called it, even as Hill was delivering the double-play pitch to Overbay: “If I’m in the middle infield right now and I’m turning a double play on a ground ball, heads up Kevin Frandsen.”

As the field cleared, Gomez even earned a pat on the back from Washington manager Matt Williams, who knows a thing or two about playing the infield. Hardly the stuff of vendettas.

It’s Desmond’s right to get upset at seeing one of his teammates taken out, but it’s also his responsibility to know the rules of the game as they pertain to propriety. Hiding behind a 9-2 deficit as an excuse to vent frustration is just weak sauce.