A.J. Burnett, Retaliation

Reds Push Pirates, Pirates Bide Their Time. Slugfest in the NL Central, Anyone?

Clint has his say.

It’s on in Pittsburgh.

Friday, Reds closer Aroldis Chapman drilled Andrew McCutchen with a 101-mph fastball. (Watch it here. Note: No rubbing.) On Saturday, Reds starter Mike Leake hit Josh Harrison, then walked toward him to deliver a follow-up message. (Watch it here.)

Umpire Brian Gorman warned both benches after the latter incident, an unfortunate development that precluded—correction, delayed—any type of Pittsburgh response. (When Pirates manager Clint Hurdle questioned the decision, Gorman promptly tossed him.) It was enough to lead Sunday’s starter, A.J. Burnett to point toward various Reds players from the dugout, the message being that accountability can sometimes be a painful thing, and he was willing to wait to enforce it.

Warnings may have been issued prior to Burnett’s Sunday start, or perhaps it was because it ended up being a close game until the ninth, or maybe it was because the Pirates had already dropped the first two games of the series to their NL Central rivals and were desperate for a victory, but the right-hander went 8 2/3, giving up only three hits and two runs in a 6-2 victory without hitting anybody (and despite two more Pirates, Rod Barajas and Starling Marte, getting hit themselves).

“No one in here has forgotten about what happened to ‘Cutch,” Burnett said in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We needed a big ‘W’ today.”

“There is a time and a place for [retaliation],” added Barajas. “Today was the time to win. We got that done.”

Pittsburgh did figure out one warning-proof way to make a statement, however. On Saturday, 6-foot-7, 245-pound reliever Jared Hughes tagged out baserunner Dioner Navarro (all 5-foot-9 of him) with a marked shove—a move that Dusty Baker later called “a bully move” in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

The notion of bullying is prominent in these teams’ shared history. It was raised Saturday by Pittsburgh bench coach Jeff Banister, who took over as manager after Hurdle’s ejection. “This is their turf, and they’re trying to bully us,” he said in an MLB.com report.

We’ve heard this story before. From The Baseball Codes:

[Dock Ellis] possessed a clear understanding of the power of intimidation, having seen it in action as his Pittsburgh Pirates teams terrorized the rest of the National League, bullying their way to three division titles and one World Series between 1970 and 1972. In ’73, though, things began to change—the Pirates inex­plicably lost their bravado and many more games than expected, finishing below .500 and in third place in the National League East. When they opened 1974 by lurching into last place with a 6-12 record, Ellis took it upon himself to spur a roster-wide attitude adjustment.

He chose as his victims the Cincinnati Reds, themselves coming off two straight division titles and on their way to ninety-eight wins. If Pittsburgh’s new timidity tipped the balance of swagger in the National League against them, the prime beneficiary was Cincinnati. Ellis wanted to reverse that trend.

“[Other teams used to] say, ‘Here come the big bad Pirates. They’re going to kick our ass.’ Like they give up,” said Ellis in Donald Hall’s book, Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball. “That’s what our team was starting to do. When Cincinnati showed up in spring training, I saw all the ballplayers doing the same thing. They were running over, talking, laughing and hee-haw this and that. Cincinnati will bullshit with us and kick our ass and laugh at us. They’re the only team that talk about us like a dog.”

When Ellis took the mound against Cincinnati on May 1, 1974, he had only one strategy in mind: to drill every batter that stepped in against him. The first was Pete Rose, who ducked out of the way when a first-pitch fastball sailed toward his head, then jumped forward to avoid the second pitch, which flew behind him. The third pitch, aimed at his rib cage, found its mark. Man on first, nobody out.

The second batter, Joe Morgan, caught Ellis’s first pitch with his kid­ney. First and second, nobody out. Third up: Dan Driessen. Ellis’s open­ing shot sailed high and inside for a ball. The second pitch found the middle of Driessen’s back.

The bases were now loaded, but the pitcher was hardly deterred. Cincinnati’s cleanup hitter, Tony Perez, took stock of the carnage and realized his only possible salvation was to stay light on his feet. He pro­ceeded to dance around four straight offerings—including a near wild pitch that flew behind him and over his head—to draw a walk and force in the game’s first run. When Ellis went 2-0 to Johnny Bench, Pirates man­ager Danny Murtaugh couldn’t take any more and removed the pitcher from the game.

“[Ellis’s] point was not to hit batters,” wrote Hall. “His point was to kick Cincinnati ass.” His point was also to inspire his teammates, to instill a measure of toughness in a languor-prone Pittsburgh squad. It might be coincidence, but after that game—which the Reds won, 5–3—the Pirates went 82-62 and won the National League East for the fourth time in five years.

Trying to intimidate an upstart is hardly new in the pantheon of baseball—just ask Cole Hamels. How the upstart responds is what really matters.

The teams meet again for three in Cincinnati starting Sept. 10, and three more in Pittsburg two-and-a-half weeks later for the season’s final game. Mark your calendars.

Retaliation, Tony La Russa

La Russa’s All-Star Snubs Have Cincy Clubhouse Crying Foul

Johnny Cueto: Still not an All-Star.

Remember when Brandon Phillips called the Cardinals “little bitches,” and in the ensuing fight Johnny Cueto kicked Jason LaRue onto the disabled list for nearly the final two months of the 2010 season, effectively ending his career?

So does Tony La Russa, who proved Sunday that baseball retaliation can take myriad shapes.

There’s no way to prove it, of course, short of La Russa admitting as much, but the ex-manager, picking reserves for the National League All-Star team, conspicuously left Phillips and Cueto off the roster.

Both are worthy of inclusion; then again, the guys La Russa ended up picking are also fine choices. That wasn’t good enough for Reds manager Dusty Baker.

“A snub like that looks bad,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “Johnny and Brandon were at the center of a skirmish between us and the Cardinals. Some of the Cardinals who aren’t there anymore are making some of the selections.”

Joey Votto chimed in as well, saying that he was “frustrated” and “disappointed.” Cueto took things a step further, adding “I don’t if know the manager of All-Star Game is pissed at me because I went out with one of his girlfriends.” (Stay classy, Johnny Cueto.)

Snubs happen every year, of course—which is probably where this discussion would have ended had La Russa himself not spoken up, telling the Enquirer that Baker was “attacking my integrity” and that “no way am I going to penalize anybody for any kind of past history.”

Which would have been fine, except that La Russa then tried to justify his position by pointing out that Cueto will be pitching on the Sunday prior to the game. In 2010, MLB implemented a rule stating that pitchers who start on the Sunday before the All-Star break are to be replaced on the roster. This year, they changed it a bit. From the new collective bargaining agreement, as reported by the Enquirer: Any pitcher who starts a game the Sunday prior to the All-Star Game “shall have the option to participate,” but “will not be permitted to pitch for more than one inning” and can set his own pitch count.

Well, then. It’s difficult to believe that La Russa was not made aware of this.

The manager is within his rights to pick whoever he wants, and to leave off those players he’d rather avoid over several days in Kansas City. But like the pitcher who admits to hitting a batter intentionally, La Russa now has more questions to answer than he would have otherwise.

Part of me thinks this is all intentional, and that La Russa’s just looking for a little extra excitement now that he’s retired. Either way, it’ll be difficult for any of the Reds to respond once he’s returned to his post-career life promoting animal welfare. Which is probably just how he wants it.

Aroldis Chapman, Don't Showboat

Stop, Drop and Roll: Chapman’s Tumble Has Folks Talking

The evolution of self-congratulation in baseball has been long and storied. Reggie Jackson lingering in the batter’s box.  Barry Bonds’s twirls and Sammy Sosa’s bunny hops en route to first base. Earlier this season we had Yoenis Cespedes, who in his third major league game took some liberties while watching a mammoth shot off of Seattle’s Jason Vargas.

It’s that last one that holds the most relevance to today’s story, which features another recent Cuban émigré, in possession of perhaps not the firmest grasp of baseball mores, celebrating his own achievement with a literally over-the-top display that was well-received by neither opponents nor teammates.

When Aroldis Chapman tumbles, people pay attention.

After closing out a 4-3 victory over Milwaukee on Tuesday, Chapman celebrated by doing a double somersault toward the plate. The guy was delighted after getting back on track following consecutive blown saves and an 11.37 ERA over his previous seven outings, and his display of exuberance was unlike any baseball had yet seen. (Watch it here.)

It’s unlikely that Chapman intended to show up the Brewers, but there’s little gray area in baseball when it comes to this sort of thing; rarely is an example of unnecessary showboating so blatant.

“It’s about professionalism . . .” Joey Votto told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “It’s just not how you do things.”

Chapman, of course, has a bit of history when it comes to making curious decisions. There’s the ticket for driving nearly 100 mph with a suspended license. There’s the stripper girlfriend who may or may not have been involved with robbing his hotel room. Both are the mark of a young guy who hasn’t yet achieved full maturity. So, for that matter, is his tumble off the mound. One difference: The first two don’t inspire opposing pitchers to drill him.

Actually, since closers rarely bat, should the Brewers opt to take his celebration the wrong way it’ll likely be one of Chapman’s teammates who ends up paying for his mistake. Which is why members of the Cincinnati clubhouse were so quick to pile on following the game.

“We don’t play like that,” said manager Dusty Baker in an MLB.com report, adding in the Enquirer that “it’ ain’t no joke,” and that “it won’t happen again, ever.”

“You can’t be doing that,” said catcher Ryan Hanigan. Votto, Jay Bruce and pitching coach Bryan Price spoke with Chapman after the game. From John Paul Morosi’s report: “By the time Chapman returned to the clubhouse, the smile he wore on the field was gone. He rested his forehead on a bat as he sat silently at his locker. He declined comment through a team official, saying he was not ‘mentally ready’ to take questions from the media.”

This was important. It told the Brewers that, regardless of how they might respond the following day, the Cincinnati organization was on top of the matter. That kind of thing can make a difference, as evidenced by the fact that Wednesday’s game featured no hit batters. That could have been due to the fact that the score was too close to chance retaliation until the ninth, or that Brewers manager Ron Roenicke spent parts of three seasons as Baker’s teammate on the Dodgers, and understands how his counterpart feels about this kind of thing. Or maybe it’s just that Milwaukee has considerable recent history with its own displays of showboating.

Still, some comfort can be taken from knowing that a situation has been handled; Baker has seen it first-hand. From The Baseball Codes:

In a game in 1996, the Giants trailed Los Angeles 11–2 in the ninth inning, and decided to station first baseman Mark Carreon at his normal depth, ignoring the runner at first, Roger Cedeno. When Cedeno, just twenty-one years old and in his first April as a big-leaguer, saw that nobody was bothering to hold him on, he headed for second—by any interpretation a horrible decision.

As the runner, safe, dusted himself off, Giants third baseman Matt Williams lit into him verbally, as did second baseman Steve Scarsone, left fielder Mel Hall, and manager Dusty Baker. Williams grew so heated that several teammates raced over to restrain him from going after the young Dodgers outfielder. . . .

At second base, Scarsone asked Cedeno if he thought it was a full count, and the outfielder responded that, no, he was just confused. “If he’s that confused, somebody ought to give him a manual on how to play baseball,” said Baker after the game. “I’ve never seen anybody that con­fused.”

In the end, it was Eric Karros [who had been up to bat when this all went down] who saved Cedeno. When he stepped out of the box, as members of the Giants harangued the bewildered baserunner, Karros didn’t simply watch idly—he turned toward the San Francisco bench and informed them that Cedeno had run without a shred of insti­tutional authority, and that Karros himself would ensure that justice was administered once the game ended. Sure enough, as Cedeno sat at his locker after the game, it was obvious to observers that he had been crying. Though the young player refused to comment, it appeared that Karros had been true to his word. “Ignorance and youth really aren’t any excuse,” said Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza, “but we were able to cool things down.”

If there’s any ongoing resentment toward Chapman among the Brewers, we likely won’t know it until July 20, shortly after the All-Star Game, when the teams meet in Cincinnati. (Then again, if rosters hold, Votto and Ryan Braun will have all kinds of time to discuss the situation as members of the National League squad.)

Unlikely as the eventuality may be, should the Brewers decide to retaliate, and they do it in appropriate fashion, it would be shocking to hear a peep of protest from Baker.

Mat Latos, Sign stealing

Sign Stealing in C-Town? Mat Latos Thinks So

With a runner at second base in the fourth, Casey Kotchman takes Mat Latos deep.

Mat Latos thinks the Indians were stealing his signs. To judge by the evidence, he may be on to something.

After a 10-9 loss to Cleveland on Monday, Latos—who gave up seven runs on eight hits over four innings—identified what he felt were telltale signs:

  • When Cleveland had runners at second, possibly peering in to catcher Ryan Hanigan’s signs and relaying the information toward the plate, hitters were sitting on what Latos felt were good pitches.
  • After reviewing video, he said that the Indians hit the ball significantly better with runners at second base than they did otherwise.
  • With Shin Soo-Choo at second in the fourth inning, Hanigan changed things up. What had been the sign for a curveball turned into the sign for a slider; Latos said that the next hitter, Asdrubal Cabrera, was subsequently looking for a breaking pitch and got jammed.

All of this, of course, could be mere coincidence. It could also mean that Cleveland is a team that likes to know what’s coming.

Either way, it doesn’t much matter. A team’s primary recourse in such a situation is to change signs, and that’s exactly what Cincinnati did; the following day, the Reds held Cleveland to three runs over 10 innings.

Situation solved.

Even Latos, who was more outspoken about the practice than most pitchers who are similarly (allegedly) victimized, was quick to admit that his lack of sharpness prevented stolen signs from being his primary issue. And he didn’t come anywhere close to threatening retaliation.

“Stealing signs is part of the game—that’s not the problem,” said Reds manager Dusty Baker in an interview for The Baseball Codes in 2006. “The problem is, if you get caught, quit. That’s the deal. If you get caught, you have to stop. . . . That’s the truth.”

Then again, Baker also made the point Tuesday in an MLB.com report that “you don’t really have to steal signs when the ball is over the heart of the plate and up”—which it most certainly was for Cleveland on Monday.

Indians manager Manny Acta denied that anything was amiss.

“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the players don’t want to know what’s coming, anyway,” he said in a Cleveland.com report. “Because you really don’t want to be taking a chance of leaning out over the plate for a 78 mile-per-hour change-up and have a 95 mile-per-hour fastball in your helmet. By the time you go and complain to the runner on second base, you might be with the paramedics.”

Acta is certainly correct about the negative repercussions, but there’s no way he actually thinks that only three-quarters of a player (yep, that’s the math on 99.9 percent of 750 big leaguers) wants to know what’s coming. There are certainly some holdouts and guess hitters out there, but it’d be a safe bet to say that at least half the hitters in baseball would jump at that type of advantage.

Look no farther than one of Acta’s own players, Johnny Damon, who, while denying that he stole signs against Cincinnati, added that he’d want to know if any of his teammates were, “because I would like to know what’s coming next time.”

There is also another possibility to explain Latos’ frustration on Monday—one that could hurt the pitcher far more than the occasionally pilfered sign.

“Tell [Latos] you don’t have to steal signs when you’re tipping pitches,” said an unnamed Cleveland hitter at MLB.com. And so the intrigue begins anew.

Derek Lowe, Dusty Baker, Retaliation

Baker-Lowe Feud Exposes Long-Seated Rift, Hints at Wild Accusations, Spurs Mutomboeque Finger Wag

While people are fixating on Dusty Baker‘s explosive charge that Derek Lowe may have been drinking at the ballpark four years ago, the first thing that jumped out at me from the newly rekindled feud between the two, which has just now grabbed headlines some four years after it allegedly started, was this: Managers still order their pitchers to retaliate?

Apparently, yes.

Sure, most expect to see it when appropriate and applaud when it happens, but from the hundreds of interviews I’ve done on the subject, the overwhelming sentiment is that direct orders in that regard are a thing of bygone eras.

Not according to Baker.

“I told [Reds starter Mat] Latos to buzz [Lowe] and make him feel uncomfortable,” he said to the Cleveland Plain Dealer about a moment in Wednesday’s game.

Come again?

Baker said specifically that while he didn’t order a drilling, he did instruct his pitcher to send an obvious message. Suffice it to say, that message was received. Following Latos’ brushback, Lowe pointed his bat toward the Reds dugout, where he saw Baker wagging his finger at him. (Lowe initially thought it was a signal of denial; Baker corrected him by telling the Plain Dealer that “[Dikembe] Mutombo didn’t shake his finger to say, ‘I didn’t have anything to do with it.’ That means, ‘Don’t mess with me or my team.’ That’s what that means. So he better learn the sign lanugage.”)

Brandon Phillips reacts to drilling.

A half-inning later, Lowe drilled Brandon Phillips in response. (Watch it here.) As an apparently amused Phillips grinned toward his dugout, plate ump Paul Nauert responded by warning both benches.

The origins of this feud are, at this point, pure speculation. Lowe offered only vague details.

“This goes back to my last year with the Dodgers [in 2008],” he said in a Cincinnati Enquirer report. “[Baker] made up some story. A lot of people got involved. People almost got fired over it. You can go ask him right now and he’ll say he has no idea what you’re talking about.”

Baker suggested that Lowe’s drilling of Joey Votto in 2009 was motivated by the mystery circumstance. In response to the pitcher saying he had no respect for him, Baker said this, again from the Enquirer: “Man, I don’t care. A lot of people don’t respect me. He don’t respect himself. The word was whatever he did and said probably there was a good chance he was drinking at the ballpark and he don’t remember what he said or what he did. OK.”

Baker and his team had a chance to retaliate for Votto’s drilling in ’09—Lowe, then with Atlanta, faced the Reds once more that season, and emerged unscathed. (The final score of that follow-up game was 3-1, Cincinnati, a margin perhaps too thin for Baker to be settling scores. Then again, a brushback like Latos ultimately delivered hardly matters in that regard.)

Either because it’s personal and not team-related, or because Lowe handled things sufficiently on his own, there was no follow-up action from the Indians when the teams played on Thursday.

Baker has been known to possess a long memory when it comes to this type of thing; in an interview for The Baseball Codes, he said, “You can’t carry stuff over unless you’ve got a long history with a guy.” This certainly qualifies as long history, but without details there’s little point even in speculating about the cause.

In the end, I keep coming back to the same question: Managers really order retaliation from their pitchers in 2012? Like many of the details in this particular drama, it merits further exploration. Ultimately, of course, we’re only going to find out as much as people are willing to talk about, which has already been more than we’re used to. Stay tuned.

Cheating, Jose Valverde

Spit-Gate Underway: Did Valverde Hock? More Importantly: Does it Matter?

Well, it sure looked like Jose Valverde spat onto the ball—or at least into his glove, which contained the ball—in Sunday’s game against Cincinnati. A clip distributed (over and over again via Twitter) by a Reds fan named Justin Tooley shows Valverde, on the mound facing Devin Mesoraco, pursing his lips and doing something that looks an awful lot like spitting into his glove.

Chatter around the Internet concerns the possibility of Major League Baseball taking action against him. The quick response: No chance.

The first reason for this is plausible deniability. Implausible as it might seem, Valverde might simply have been sneezing. There’s also the fact that his ensuing pitch was a high-and-tight four-seam fastball, not the typical diver that pitchers look for from spitters. As Yahoo’s Kevin Kaduk noted, “Valverde is well known for throwing a split-fingered fastball, which makes you wonder why he passed on throwing that pitch if he did indeed spit on the ball.”

Writer/pitcher Dirk Hayhurst (who’s graced these pages before) weighed in on his blog with the notion that spitting on the baseball is, in the pantheon of ball-doctoring methodology, “like trying to kill an antelope with a sharp stick.” He also ran down the assortment of goops found in bullpen bags across the land:

Sun screen combined with rosin make for on the fly finger Fixodent. Firm Grip, found in every training room, makes the ball hang from your finger tips. Well rubbed in shaving gel gives a little extra tack, but no to so much that your hands suck up dirt and dust like chicken getting battered for deep fry.

Vasilene does the opposite. The ball slides out of your hand like a splitter and drops significantly more. If Vaseline is to advanced for you, try Skin Lube, it’s the gunk trainers stick under tape wraps so players don’t chafe while playing. It doesn’t gleam like Vasilene so you can smear it under your hat bill with out worry.

Umps really watching you? Try Kramergesic or Red Hot. Burns a little, but it also leaves a nice slime in it’s wake. If you get asked about it, you can say it’s medicinal. Plus, a mixture of lube and sweat works far better than spit or snot . . . Unless you prefer snot, in which case, rub a little Red Hot in your nose and get it running good. Just don’t get it in your eyes or you’ll leave the game in tears regardless of your performance.

Heck, in the case of Ted Lilly, it wasn’t even about substances he used, but where he (allegedly) stood atop the mound. With all this stuff at his disposal, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for a pitcher to expectorate in obvious ways as the center of attention on a baseball diamond. (Then again, very little about Jose Valverde actually does make sense.)

If you’re wondering whether any of the pitchers who utilize those methods have been caught, the answer is a resounding yes—a lot of them do it, and it’s impossible that they could all avoid detection. Their collective penalty, outside of the rogue moundsman every decade or so whose viscous  pursuits are so obvious as to leave no choice but punishment once they’re discovered : virtually nothing. Baseball has avoided punitive action with far more damning evidence in hand than Valverde just offered up. Take Red Munger, a pitcher for the Cardinals in the 1940s. From The Baseball Codes:

Munger was known by opponents and umpires alike to load up balls with tobacco juice. After umpire Larry Goetz called the second strike of an at-bat on one of Munger’s doctored pitches, the hitter complained that the pitch had been a spitter. “Yes it was,” Cardinals catcher Joe Garagiola recalled Goetz saying. “Strike two.”

A cheating pitcher may simply be a hornets’ nest that most umpires don’t appear inclined to poke. For something more recent, there’s this, also from The Baseball Codes:

In April 1973, Yankees outfielder Bobby Murcer exploded to the press after facing Cleveland’s greaseball king Gaylord Perry in the pitcher’s second start of the season, yelling: “Just about everything he throws is a spitter. . . . The more he knows you’re bothered by him throw­ing it the better he is against you. He’s got the stuff behind his ear and on his arm and on his chest. He puts it on each inning. I picked up the balls and they’re so greasy you can’t throw them.” Murcer went so far as to call commissioner Bowie Kuhn “gutless” for refusing to respond—and this was after the outfielder had recorded a three-hit game against Perry. When the pitcher was confronted with Murcer’s accusations, however, he said that Murcer hit “fastballs and sliders,” not spitballs. It would have been a more credible excuse had Perry been on the same page as his catcher, Dave Duncan, who in a separate contrived denial said that Murcer had hit “off-speed stuff.”

To further the argument, The New York Times hired an unnamed Yan­kees pitcher to chart Perry’s every pitch throughout the game, marking those he thought to be spitballs. When the resulting pitch chart was com­pared with a replay of the game, the Times noted that, before every pitch identified as a spitter by the Yankees operative, Perry tugged at the inside of his left sleeve with his right (pitching) hand—an action he did not take for the rest of his repertoire. Yankees second baseman Horace Clarke, according to the chart, struck out on a spitter that, on replay, was seen to drop at least a foot. In the fourth inning, Thurman Munson asked to see the ball twice during his at-bat—during which, said the chart, Perry threw four spitters. . . .

Partly in reaction to the uproar Perry caused, a rule was implemented in 1974 that removed the mandate for hard proof in an umpire’s spitball warning, saying that peculiar movement on a pitch provided ample evi­dence. It didn’t take long—all of six innings into the season—before Perry earned his first warning under the new rule. Not that it mattered; by the end of the season he had won twenty-one games, was voted onto the All-Star team, finished fourth in the Cy Young balloting, and was thrown out of exactly zero games for doctoring baseballs.

In fact, Perry wasn’t docked for throwing a spitter until 1982, when he was 43 years old and in his 21st big league season—eight years after his autobiography, Me and the Spitter, was published.

Hayhurst made the excellent point that some of the greatest pitchers of all time cheated. Greg Maddux’s name has come up repeatedly during the course of this particular conversation. Nolan Ryan, Don Drysdale and Whitey Ford either admitted to or were regularly accused of scuffing balls or loading them up. When Commissioner Ford Frick lobbied to have the spitball re-legalized in 1955, Pee Wee Reese responded with the classic comment, “Restore the spitter? When did they stop throwing it?”

So even if you don’t afford Valverde the benefit of the doubt; even if you’re outraged that a pitcher would resort to such underhanded tactics; try to get over it. You’ll be receiving no satisfaction from baseball’s response—if baseball responds at all.

Update (7-12-12): Valverde says he was just wiping sweat from his face.

Update (7-13-12): MLB has spoken with the Tigers, with no apparent ramifications.

Buster Posey, Retaliation, Sam LeCure

A Time and a Place for Everything, or: What Was it You Were Retaliating for, Again?

Buster's revenge: Posey takes Sam LeCure deep in the ninth.

In baseball, it’s not difficult to determine what constitutes a retaliation-worthy offense, and what does not. Intent behind that HBP? Retaliate away. Nobody should say a word.

On Tuesday, however, Reds reliever Sam LeCure apparently didn’t care for the fact that Joey Votto was drilled in the backside by San Francisco’s Dan Otero during what would become a six-run inning. What he failed to consider: Otero is a rookie with all of 6.2 innings to his name this season, and was in the midst of a full-throated meltdown—all six runs were his, in fewer than two innings—that saw his ERA rise from 2.70 to 8.64. The guy was clearly not hitting his marks.

Which didn’t keep LeCure from putting a ball behind Buster Posey’s knee in the ninth.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy was seen to mouth the words, “That’s fucking bullshit” in the dugout, and was more than happy to expound on that theme after the game.

“The kid (Otero) has got two weeks in the big-leagues,” he told the press. “He’s trying to get through an inning. He’s trying to survive. He’s not trying to hit anybody. He was scuffling out there. I’m sure he was nervous. . . . That’s how people get hurt. Here’s a guy (Posey) we lost for a long time last year and he gets a ball thrown at his kneecap.”

Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle had an interesting take on LeCure’s rationale, going back to Daniel Hudson’s preseason proclamation that Arizona pitchers would no longer tolerate shots at their teammates:

During spring training, Arizonastarter Daniel Hudson articulated a warning to all the pitchers in the National League. Justin Upton is the Diamondbacks’ best player and he was hit by 19 pitches last year, most in the National League. So Hudson made it clear that if Upton continued to get hit, the Diamondbacks would retaliate.

I get that. I also get that sometimes it’s OK for a team to retaliate for a hit batter even if it was accidental, if it keeps happening over and over. At some point, the batter’s team needs to show it will not let opponents continue to use a guy as a dartboard, and there will be consequences.

Thus, when Reds reliever Sam LeCure threw behind Buster Posey in the ninth inning of tonight’s 9-2 Reds win, in obvious retaliation for Dan Otero’s equally obvious accidental drilling of Joey Votto in the seventh, I initially thought it was OK. I figured Votto had been a target lately and LeCure was just doing with the baseball what Hudson did with his language in spring training. So I grabbed the stat sheet to see how many times Votto had been hit this season.

Zero.

The part that makes the least sense is that the Giants’ leadoff batter the following inning was none other than Dan Otero (who was left in to mop up what was by then a hopeless game). Holding an eight-run lead, Reds reliever Jose Arredondo proceeded to strike him out. That was Cincinnati’s best—and some would say, only, as far as justification is concerned—shot at retaliation. That it took another inning and a different pitcher to get it done speaks to darker things. There’s a chance that Arredondo was influenced by Reds starter Matt Latos—so outspoken in his dislike of the Giants that before the game he handed a ball to the Cincinnati broadcasters inscribed with the phrase, “I hate the Giants.” (Latos and San Francisco built up no shortage of animosity in 2010, when the right-hander pitched for San Diego.)

The dugouts were warned, after which Posey got the best kind of revenge: He hit a two-run homer that ended Cincinnati’s bid for a shutout.

Teams play again today. Stay tuned.

Clint Hurdle, Dusty Baker, Gamesmanship, Jim Tracy, Kevin Towers, Tony La Russa

Lights, Rain and Radar: How to Get into your Opponent’s Head, an Introductory Course in Gamesmanship

When the lights go down in St. Louis . . .

When the lights went out in St. Louis last night, there were two outs in the 11th inning and San Francisco’s Brian Wilson was on the verge of closing out a 7-5 victory.

Instead, the teams sat for 16 minutes while the sound guy at Busch Stadium played Journey’s “Lights” and somebody tried to deal with the electrical system.

The chatter after Wilson finally returned to record the game’s final out had to do with the possibility of malfeasance on the part of Tony La Russa. Did the Cards’ manager manipulate the power grid in an effort to cool down the opposing closer?

Of course he didn’t. Or at least he probably didn’t. Still, the coincidental timing was enough for Bruce Bochy to quip afterward that it was “pretty good gamesmanship” on La Russa’s part.

The Giants’ skipper was joking, but there’s a reason La Russa’s name comes up during moments like this.

Earlier this year, for example, he was accused of selectively distributing weather information when the Cardinals were hosting Cincinnati, then pitching reliever Miguel Batista instead his scheduled starter, Kyle McClellan. Batista threw all of six pitches before rain halted the game for more than two hours.

Afterward, McClellan, fresh, took his rightful place on the mound.

Dusty Baker, meanwhile, claiming an information inequity between the teams, had his starter, Edinson Volquez, warm up from the get-go. The right-hander never got a chance to pitch, however; when play resumed, Baker had to turn to Matt Maloney rather than risk having Volquez get hot twice.

“It’s really a tough start,” Baker said in an MLB.com report. “The information that we received was probably not the same information they received, or else we wouldn’t have started [Volquez] in the first place. We were told there was going to be a window of opportunity there. That window lasted about three minutes.”

Maloney gave up three runs in three innings, and the Cardinals won, 4-2.

La Russa, of course, is hardly alone when it comes to gamesmanship. In April, Livan Hernandez accused the Pirates of doing much the same thing.

Weather reports, however, are far less interesting than the other tally on Pittsburgh’s gamesmanship scorecard. That came when Clint Hurdle appeared to dupe Rockies skipper Jim Tracy with two outs in the 14th inning of a tie game. With a runner on first, Andrew McCutchen stepped into the on-deck circle as Jose Tabata batted.

That had been McCutcheon’s spot in the order earlier in the game, but the outfielder was removed as part of a double-switch. The guy actually scheduled to hit next was relief pitcher Garrett Olson, whose last plate appearance had come in 2009, and who has collected all of one hit in his five-year career.

Had Tracy been paying better attention, he might have realized that the Pirates’ bench was empty, leaving Olson to fend for himself at the plate.

It never came to that. Seeing McCutchen, Tracy had reliever Franklin Morales pitch to Tabata—who promptly lashed a game-winning double. (Watch it here.)

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Asked if the move was a decoy to get the Rockies to think McCutchen was up next … ‘No, come on, why would we do that,’ Hurdle said with a sly chuckle.”

* * *

Rain delays and decoys are one way for a home team to gain an advantage. Radar guns are another.

Earlier this season, Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers admitted to the Arizona Republic that when he held the same post with San Diego, the Padres took to manipulating their ballpark’s radar gun to get into the heads of opposing pitchers.

“I know for a fact that every time Brad Penny pitched for the Dodgers in San Diego it was probably the lowest velocities he ever had,” he said. “He liked velocity. He’d stare at the board. He was throwing 95-96, but we’d have it at 91 and he’d get pissed off and throw harder and harder and start elevating.”

Hardball Talk’s Aaron Gleeman checked, and—lo and behold—Penny is 1-5 with a 6.47 ERA in 10 career games pitched in San Diego.

(The subject was initially raised when fireballing Aroldis Chapman, after topping out at 106 mph earlier in the season, dropped nearly 15 mph off his fastball in San Diego, then magically regained his velocity during Cincinnati’s next series. Towers’ comments could themselves have been a form of gamesmanship, as his new club uses the non-manipulatable Pitch-f/x system, and the Padres—and all their secrets—are now the enemy.)

The tactic works both ways. During the 2002 postseason, when Robb Nen was throwing pus with a shredded shoulder during what would be the final innings of his career, the folks at AT&T Park shut off the radar gun altogether when the Giants’ closer entered the game. It might not have fooled anyone on the opposing team, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

– Jason

Brian Fuentes, Clubhouse Etiquette, Don't Call Out Teammates in the Press, Edinson Volquez, Fred Wilpon, The Baseball Codes

You Talk Too Much: The Fine Art of Complaining Your Way into the Doghouse

Edinson Volquez, in a moment of not saying anything.

It’s been a bad week for baseball types to talk, with every talker doing his darndest to deflect blame that he incontrovertibly deserves.

In Cincinnati, Edinson Volquez continued his season-long meltdown on Sunday by giving up seven runs to Cleveland over 2 2/3 innings. The right-hander has a 6.35 ERA and leads the National League with 38 walks.

Volquez’s problem, according to Volquez: the Reds’ offense.

“Everybody has to step up, start to score some runs,” he said in the Cincinnati Enquirer. “In the last five games, how many runs have we scored? Like 13? That’s not the way we were playing last year. We’re better than that.”

This is a terrific way to further alienate teammates who are already undoubtedly upset with the pitcher’s inability to keep Cincinnati in games. It’s even more infuriating than Gaylord Perry’s habit of physically showing frustration on the mound when his teammates made errors behind him in the field. At least Perry took the blame when he deserved it. Plus–unlike Volquez–he was a winner.

Cincinnati’s response was swift; on Monday, Volquez was optioned to Louisville. It was a dramatic move–the right-hander was their opening day starter, a former All-Star who went 17-6 in 2008. Of course, the guy has long battled maturity issues, being kicked by the Rangers all the way down to Single-A from the big leagues in 2007, shortly before they shipped him to Cincinnati (in exchange for Josh Hamilton).

If Volquez jeopardized his own spot in a major league clubhouse, Brian Fuentes jeopardized that of his manager. After Oakland’s interim closer gave up the lead yesterday against the Angels, he used his time in front of the post-game media to light into Bob Geren.

As with Volquez, it was primarily a matter of frustration. Fuentes has picked up losses in four straight appearances; his seven on the season already stand as a career high. He’s on pace to lose more games than any reliever in history.

At issue: how Fuentes has been used. He hasn’t had a save opportunity since May 8, coming primarily into tie games as of late. It happened again on Monday, when Fuentes walked one of the two hitters he faced before being pulled in favor of Michael Wuertz, who promptly let his inherited runner score, tagging Fuentes with the loss.

MLB.com’s Jane Lee posted the entire transcript of the reliever’s bluster:

What did you think of the situation you were placed in tonight?

It’s surprising yet not surprising all at the same time.

How do you feel with the way the manager has handled you as a reliever?
Pretty poorly.

How much communication do you have with him?
Zero.

Why is it pretty poorly?
There’s just no communication. Two games, on the road, bring the closer in a tied game, with no previous discussions of doing so. And then, tonight, in the seventh inning, I get up. I haven’t stretched, I haven’t prepared myself. If there was some communication beforehand I would be ready to come into the game  – which I was, when I came into the game, I was ready. Just lack of communication. I don’t think anybody really knows which direction he’s headed.

How much different is this compared to past managers?
It’s a pretty drastic difference.

What goes through your mind when the phone rings in the seventh tonight?
I thought he misspoke. I thought it was some sort of miscommunication, but he said, ‘No, you’re up,’ so I got up and cranked it up. You can’t try to guess along with them. Very unpredictable.

At the beginning of the season, did he tell you that you were the closer?
Yes, from get go, I’ve been closing.

In regards to communication, is that something that ought to change?
It should. It’s not my decision. I can’t predict the future. If he decides to take that step, then there will be communication. If not, I’ll make sure I’m ready from the first.

Does there need to be a “clear the air” meeting?
Some people might think so. At this point I have nothing to say.

Has this been boiling up or is it just recent?
Just recent, really. I think the games in San Francisco were some unorthodox managing. I thought it was maybe the National league thing, that maybe that had something to do with it, but tonight was pretty unbelievable.

“Unbelievable” is an appropriate term. Fuentes has some validity with his points, but going public with them makes him look like a half-bit pitcher searching desperately for excuses. In the process, he completely undermined his manager and potentially damaged team chemistry. Today saw calls for Geren to resign, and questions have been raised about how the team will communicate moving forward.

This is a lot of damage for a pitcher who has been with the A’s for all of two months to inflict over the course of a five-minute interview.

The Reds sent Volquez to the minors. Fuentes doesn’t have to worry about that, but his position in the bullpen is certainly in danger. (Geren said that would have been the case even had Fuentes kept his mouth shut.) A’s closer Andrew Bailey is due back soon from the DL, and the return to health of Joey Devine and Josh Outman makes Fuentes expendable; shuffling him out of sight until he can be dealt to a contender should not be too difficult. (Fuentes came back tonight, and, without backing down from his statements, apologized to Geren—assumedly for the public nature of his discourse.)

* * *

Most noteworthy of all talkers was Mets owner Fred Wilpon, who set New York atwitter as soon as the New Yorker published Jeffrey Toobin’s profile of him. Amid what is otherwise a sympathetic story, Wilpon spent a few choice paragraphs disparaging his players. Jose Reyes, he said, will never get “Carl Crawford money” when he hits free agency after this season, because he’s too frequently injured. (The direct quote: “He’s had everything wrong with him.”)

Carlos Beltran was given a seven-year, $119 million deal by “some schmuck” (that would be Wilpon referring to himself), which the owner has come to regret. David Wright, he said, while a very good player, is not a superstar.

And the team as a whole: “Shitty.”

Yikes. In one brutal volley, Wilpon inadvertently undermined his financial recovery from the Bernie Maddoff fallout, at least as far as the Mets are concerned. (This despite the fact that, like Fuentes, Wilpon probably didn’t say anything that was inaccurate). He’s not going to re-sign Reyes, that much is now clear; what leverage the Mets held in trade talks regarding their shortstop has been radically diminished. Beltran, too, is on the trading block, but what kind of bargaining position will the Mets be in after their owner proclaimed the center fielder to be “sixty-five to seventy percent of what he was?” Will Wright—or any other player, for that matter—want to stick around a dysfunctional ballclub once free agency comes calling?

Most of all, Wilpon wants to sell part of the team, which may be harder to do after he’s publically acknowledged that it’s shitty. Not to mention that whoever buys in would have to defer to a proven loose cannon.

Other players on all three teams—the Reds, A’s and Mets—have done a good job avoiding additional conflict, opting against saying anything to further inflame their situations. Dennis Eckersley, however, let loose on Fuentes during an interview on the A’s flagship radio station (as tweeted by Chronicle columnist John Shea and compiled by Hardball Talk). Eck was talking about Fuentes, but conceptually he could have be referring to any one of the three:

“Weak. If you fail, you fail. You don’t throw the manager under the bus.  . . . He makes a ton of money, and he’s not the greatest closer in the universe. So zip it … It makes him look bad. It just does. At the same time, it doesn’t show a lot of respect for the manager … If I’m the manager, he’s in my office. If that was La Russa, are you kidding me? He’d chop my head off. I would make a formal apology … Geren’s got to do something.”

Geren does have to do something. As do the Reds (Volquez can’t stay in the minors forever) and the Mets.

All that’s left to figure out is what.

Update: Wilpon has apologized to the Mets, via conference call.

Update 2: For Geren, the piling on has officially begun. The latest: Huston Street weighed in on his ex-manager’s shortcomings from Colorado. Plus, a tale about Mike Sweeney not getting along with the guy, which really doesn’t look good considering that if there was a Nicest Man in the History of Baseball Award, it’d likely go to Sweeney. Unless the A’s experience extraordinary success into October, the chances of Geren returning next year are at this point minimal. If he makes it even that long.

– Jason

Albert Pujols, Francisco Cordero, Retaliation

Cards Sensitive, Cordero Indignant, Next Chapter all but Written

Francisco Cordero has some things to say.

That the Yankees hate the Red Sox (and vice versa) is not quite true.

That Yankees fans hate Red Sox fans (and vice versa) is much more to the point. What happens between the teams on the field is primarily about competition, not vitriol. It’s a process involves little actual animosity.

The same does not hold true for the Cardinals and the Reds.

These teams share a laundry list of recent dustups, starting last year with Brandon Phillips calling the Cardinals “little bitches”; continuing on to Phillips starting a fight with Yadier Molina, and Johnny Cueto kicking Jason LaRue onto the disabled list; and more recently to Tony La Russa slyly using the weather report to outmaneuver Dusty Baker just last month.

The latest episode came Sunday, at the end of Cincinnati’s 9-7 victory over the Cardinals—the final moments of what would be the Reds’ first three-game sweep of St. Louis since 2007. They scored eight consecutive runs to beat Chris Carpenter for the first time in five years.

With one out in the ninth inning—after St. Louis had tightened what had been a 9-2 deficit over the previous seven hitters—closer Reds closer Francisco Cordero drilled Albert Pujols with an 0-2 pitch. (Watch it here.)

To watch the response from the Cardinals bench, it seems that Kyle Lohse isn’t the only one doing impressions of La Russa. Acting manager Joe Pettini—in charge while La Russa dealt with health issues—pitching coach Dave Duncan and backup catcher Gerald Laird picked up the indignant we-will-not-be-abused mantle so visibly embraced by their skipper, lighting into Cordero from the dugout as the Reds congratulated one another on the field. Cordero responded in kind, shouting and gesturing toward the St. Louis bench. (Watch it here.)

“The soap opera continues between these guys,” Pettini said in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “It’s always something when you come in here.”

The reality, of course, is that closers, by dint of being used almost exclusively in close games, almost never send message pitches—at least not ones that hurt. That was certainly the case here; Pujols was the tying run, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman were to follow, and the pitch in question was no more than a few inches inside, hitting Pujols on the left wrist.

Pujols himself said that Cordero wasn’t trying to hit him, that it was “probably something that slipped.”

The teams next meet on July 4 in St. Louis. (Brace for the inevitable “Fireworks at Busch” headlines.) If there’s a clear target on the Cardinals, it’ll likely be Laird, Cordero’s former teammate on the Rangers, who accounted for much of the shouting and who, unlike Pettini and Duncan, occasionally takes the field.

“I just told (Laird), ‘Say it again’ . . .” said Cordero. “I thought it was funny that a guy who wasn’t playing was yelling at me.”

It was little more than posturing on the Cardinals’ part, and even they know it. Perhaps it’ll somehow distract Cincinnati in the future, but even that’s unlikely. Mostly, it served only to unnecessarily perpetuate what’s becoming a significant history of bad blood.

(Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman didn’t help matters any when he said on the air that Carpenter was a “whiner and excuse-maker,” that Duncan was “infantile” and that the Cardinals “might be the most disliked team in baseball.”)

“The teams don’t like each other,” said Berkman after the game in the Cincinnati Enquirer. “That’s just part of the deal.”

– Jason