As soon as John Lackey drilled Matt Joyce in the back with a 90-mph fastball in the sixth inning of Monday night’s game, people were already speculating how far back the antagonism ran.
Did it date back to the second inning, when Joyce connected for a mammoth foul ball to right, then dropped his bat—“styled,” in the words of MassLive writer Evan Drellich—as if he’d just homered?
Did it date back to the first inning, when Joyce actually did homer?
Lackey did some yelling toward the Rays dugout after Joyce’s second-inning pimp show. After being hit, Joyce pointed toward Lackey amid a slurry of what is safe to assume was epithets, then got into a pushing match with Jarrod Saltalamacchia when the catcher cut off his path to the mound. That was when benches emptied, although no punches were thrown. (Watch it discussed on MLB Tonight, complete with clips.)
Joyce actually thought that it was none of the above.
“As far as I understood, he was pretty upset that I dropped my bat on that 3-0 swing,” Joyce said in a Tampa Tribune report, describing the count when he pulled his second-inning ball foul. There is indeed an unwritten rule about restraint from swinging at 3-0 pitches, but it only applies late in blowout games—never in the second inning.
In case there was doubt about Joyce’s personal view of possible impropriety, it was cleared up by what he said next: “I was actually pretty upset myself I had such a good pitch to hit and missed it. I usually never drop the bat.”
In a close game (the Red Sox would win, 10-8, in 14 innings), Tampa Bay settled for a low-impact response—in the seventh inning, reliever Joel Peralta threw his first pitch, to Dustin Pedroia, high and tight. (Even that is up for interpretation; it was a 79 mph curveball.)
Beyond that, Lackey denied intent and was alternately defended by one manager (his own) and criticized by the other.
While the easy answer is that hostilities started with Joyce’s second-inning swing, the reality is that whenever something happens between these teams it’s almost expected. Their relationship over the last decade-plus has been testy enough to have inspired an entire section in The Baseball Codes; between 2000 and 2008, it seemed like every one of their meetings added another chapter to their collective book of spite, and things have hardly slowed from there. A condensed excerpt:
* August 2000: Boston’s Pedro Martinez hits Gerald Williams on the hand with his fourth pitch of the game. Williams charges the mound, shoving the much smaller Martinez to the ground and lands a glancing blow to his face. Benches empty, during which Boston’s Brian Daubach dives into the scrum, where Tampa players accuse him of taking cheap shots. The commissioner’s office eventually rules that Daubach acted appropriately, but by the time the game ends, Daubach has been thrown at by a succession of Devil Rays pitchers, starting with Dave Eiland—who wants to hit him so badly that, with two on and nobody out in the third inning, he sends his first pitch spinning toward Daubach’s head. The hitter manages to avoid that one, but can’t get out of the way of Eiland’s next pitch, which drills him in the body. Shortly therafter Eiland hits Nomar Garciaparra and is tossed from the game. His replacement, Cory Lidle, is himself ejected after throwing a pitch behind Daubach. Lidle’s replacement, Tony Fiore, lasts all of two pitches before finishing the job, drilling Daubach with his third offering and spurring another confrontation between the teams.
* September 29, 2000: Tampa Bay eliminates the Red Sox from the AL East race with an 8–6 victory. From the mound, Rays closer Roberto Hernandez waves a sarcastic bye-bye to the Tropicana Field visitors’ dugout.
* 2001: Over the course of the season, Devil Rays pitchers hit eleven Boston batters; Red Sox pitchers tag nine Tampa hitters.
* May 5, 2002: Devil Rays pitcher Ryan Rupe hits both Garciaparra and Shea Hillenbrand in the first inning, a day after each was instrumental in helping Boston overcome a 5–2, ninth-inning deficit. Boston’s Trot Nixon lets go of his bat on a swing, sending it ﬂying toward the mound. Red Sox pitcher Frank Castillo responds by hitting Tampa’s Randy Winn. Both Castillo and Nixon are suspended.
* July 18, 2002: The day after Manny Ramirez scorches the Devil Rays with a home run and a double, he’s hit by Tampa starter Tanyon Sturtze. Boston’s Frank Castillo hits Tampa Bay second baseman Brent Abernathy in the third, and reliever Tim Wakefield hits him again in the fifth. In the ninth, Devil Rays reliever Esteban Yan just misses Ramirez’s head as the slugger ducks, and the ball glances off his shoulder. “You can’t act like what happened never happened,” says Derek Lowe in the Boston Herald. He also says, “Every year, why is it always this team?”
* September 9, 2002: Lowe keeps wondering after being ejected for hitting Devil Rays shortstop Felix Escalona with a pitch. The following night, Tampa Bay reliever Lee Gardner, pitching in the eighth inning of an 11–1 Boston runaway, is ejected for hitting second baseman Lou Merloni.
* September 27, 2004: Red Sox starter Bronson Arroyo keeps relations testy by hitting both Aubrey Huff and Tino Martinez in the third inning. Devil Rays pitcher Scott Kazmir retaliates by hitting Manny Ramirez and Kevin Millar in consecutive at-bats an inning later, emptying the benches. Kazmir is ejected.
* April 22–24, 2005: Five batters are hit in the first two games of a three-game series between the teams. In the third game, Arroyo hits Huff—7-for-10 lifetime against him—for the second time in as many seasons. An inning later, Devil Rays reliever Lance Carter throws a pitch behind Ramirez’s head, eliciting warnings for both benches. One pitch later, Ramirez belts a home run. Carter then throws at the head of the next hitter, David Ortiz, who has to be restrained by catcher Toby Hall. Dugouts empty, and Carter, Trot Nixon, Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella and pitcher Dewon Brazelton are ejected. In the seventh, Arroyo hits leadoff batter Chris Singleton on the thigh, earning his own ejection. In a radio interview on WEEI after the game, Boston pitcher Curt Schilling blames Piniella: “Players on that team are saying, ‘This is why we lose a hundred games a year, because this idiot makes us do stuff like this.’ ” A day later, also on the radio, Piniella says, “I have forgot more baseball than this guy knows.”
* March 27, 2006: After tagging out Tampa’s Joey Gathright at the plate during a spring-training game, Boston reliever Julian Tavarez stands on the baserunner’s arm, he says, so that Gathright couldn’t “throw a punch at me right away.” Tavarez then hits Gathright in the jaw while the outfielder is down on one knee. Gathright later says that Tavarez “hits like a woman.” Devil Rays outfielder Carl Crawford subsequently challenges the pitcher to a post-game fight in the parking lot.
* June 5, 2008: The highlight of five hit batters on the night is Boston outfielder Coco Crisp’s charge of the mound after being drilled by right-hander James Shields of the Rays, who by this time have dropped the “Devil” from their name if not their attitude. Shields is responding to Crisp’s hard slide into second baseman Akinori Iwamura the previous night, which was itself a response to Tampa Bay shortstop Jason Bartlett using his leg to block Crisp’s headfirst slide into second. Shields misses with a roundhouse right, and Crisp— with 17 knockouts to his credit in 17 amateur boxing matches as a youth—is able to land one shot of his own before being overwhelmed by a scrum of Rays, primary among them Crawford and Johnny Gomes, who shower blows upon him. (After the game, Crisp says that the Rays were like “little girls, trying to scratch out my eyes.” Shields had already hit Dustin Pedroia in the first inning, and Boston’s Jon Lester responds by hitting Crawford, then Iwamura. Tampa Bay reliever Al Reyes closes the festivities by drilling Kevin Youkilis in Boston’s final at-bat.
* October 10, 2008: In Game 1 of the ALCS, Rays reliever Grant Balfour sends a fastball toward the face of Boston outfielder J. D. Drew, which catches the slugger’s shoulder as he spins to avoid it. Barking ensues, and the seven-game series is so tight that even four more hit batters (two from each team) over the remaining games do little to raise the tension.
Things hardly ended there. There were the three times Tampa Bay’s Luke Scott was hit by Boston pitchers over a three-game span in 2012—the last of which ended up in a brawl. (Red Sox reliever Franklin Morales threw a fastball behind Scott’s back, then two inside, then finally drilled him in the leg. Earlier, Pedroia had been drilled, and a pitch thrown over Daniel Nava’s head.)
There were words last March, when Alfredo Aceves drilled Sean Rodriguez in the shoulder, one at-bat after he had homered.
All of which gives some context to Monday night’s dustup. Just another day at the office, it seems.
Update (6-12-13): The Rays still have opinions.