Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

Verlander’s No-No Beaten By Bunt, and Nobody Seems to Mind

Dyson bunts

It’s a convoluted question, so bear with me: Can the circumstances following a clear violation of the unwritten rules somehow alter how that rule is perceived?

In other words, might the end of a play justify the means?

The play in question is Jarrod Dyson’s bunt in the sixth inning of yesterday’s game against the Tigers, which broke up Justin Verlander’s perfect game.

Such a thing, of course, has long been frowned upon by baseball moralists as disrespectful of a pitcher’s attempt at greatness. To challenge a guy fully, the theory goes, one must do so in a straightforward manner, without trickery or deceit.

The most famous example of this, as outlined in The Baseball Codes, was the bunt laid down by Padres catcher Ben Davis against Arizona’s Curt Schilling in 2001. Davis was San Diego’s 23rd batter of the night but the first—after his ill-executed attempt managed to drop between the mound and second base—to reach safely. Afterward, Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly called the play “chickenshit” and said that Davis “has a lot to learn about how the game is played.”

Part of it was the intrusion on attempted perfection. Part of it was that Davis was a slow-footed catcher for whom bunting and speed were hardly part of his repertoire. Part of it was that the attempt came in the eighth inning, with Schilling only five outs from immortality.

One detail, however, served as adequate cover. The score was 2-0, and Davis had managed to bring the tying run to the plate. No matter how much animosity his bunt engendered in the opposing dugout, it is impossible to ignore the prime directive governing baseball’s unwritten rules: Winning trumps everything, and Davis had given his team its best chance on the day to win. Justification.

The circumstances yesterday in Seattle were somewhat different. Dyson’s bunt came in the sixth inning—early enough, perhaps, to validate it on its own merits. Take it from a different Seattle player, Jarrod Washburn—who pitched for the Mariners for four seasons, through 2009—whose own no-hitter was broken up by a bunt from Tampa Bay rookie Ben Zobrist in 2006. Like Dyson, Zobrist did it in the sixth inning, and it didn’t bother Washburn a bit. “If it was the eighth or ninth, maybe that would have rubbed me the wrong way,” he said at the time, “but bunting is just part of the game, and he was just trying to make something happen.”

Also in Dyson’s favor is that, unlike Davis, speed is an integral part of his game. Still, the play occurred while the Tigers held a 4-0 lead, and Dyson hardly represented the tying run. Sixteen years earlier, Davis could have creditably claimed that winning informed his strategy, but down four runs, Dyson’s rationalization was considerably more specious … save for two little words: And then.

And then, pitching out of the stretch for the first time all night, Verlander walked Mike Zunino. And then Jean Segura collected an infield single to load the bases. And then Ben Gamel scored Dyson with a single to center. And then, after Verlander struck out Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz brought home two more with a double. And then it was 4-3 and Verlander’s day was over. After retiring Seattle’s first 16 hitters, he retired only one of its next six, including Dyson’s bunt. Seattle scored four more against Detroit’s bullpen, and went home with a 7-5 victory.

Regardless of how things may have seemed at the moment Dyson laid down his bunt, there’s no questioning that the effort played a significant role in his team’s victory. Justification.

After the game, Verlander said that he had no problem with Dyson’s strategy. The best summation, however, came from Schilling, in reference to his own spoiled no-hitter all those years earlier. “Unwritten rules or not, you’re paid to win games,” he said in The Baseball Codes. “That’s the only reason you’re playing in the big leagues.”



Justin Verlander: Holding the Line for Sportsmen Across the Land

Justin VerlanderBy now, you’ve undoubtedly heard Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman shooting off his mouth to disparage his opponent after making a nice play to close out Seattle’s win over the 49ers on Sunday. (Details at Deadspin.)

Shortly after the game, Justin Verlander tweeted this:

Why baseball is great: Players (at least some of them) keep each other accountable. No threat of impact, no taunting about imminent pain, just a suggestion to keep loose in the batter’s box—that happy feet might be in one’s future—is enough to get a guy thinking. As players frequently attest, anticipating a pitch like that is often worse than the pitch itself.

Bert Blyleven, Hotfoots, Justin Verlander

Verlander Turns Up Heat in Tigers’ Dugout

You want old-school? You can’t handle old-school. At least not if you’re Don Kelly.

Actually, Kelly handled it pretty well last week, after Justin Verlander went about as old-school as modern ballplayers can go in setting his teammate’s shoes on fire. Kelly, in a spectacularly measured response, stamped out his flaming foot, then went about his business as if nothing had happened. (Watch it here.)

Hotfoots, once a clubhouse staple, have become increasingly rare in recent years. Whether coincidence or spectacular tribute, Verlander’s prank coincided with the Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Bert Blyleven, the undisputed master of the craft.

Verlander’s work was first-rate, but he still has a ways to go by Blyleven standards. From The Baseball Codes:

Bert Blyleven pitched in the major leagues for twenty-two years, and if Cooperstown applied the instigation of podiatric discomfort as one of its entry criteria, he would have been enshrined five years after his 1992 retirement. How good was he? For a time, the fire extinguisher in the Angels’ clubhouse read “In case of Blyleven. Pull.”

Ordinary hotfoot artists settle for wrecking their teammates’ cleats, but Blyleven was so good that he took the rare step of drawing the opposition into his line of fire. In 1990, the pitcher, then with the Angels, set his sights on Seattle manager Jim Lefebvre, who made the mistake of con­ducting an interview near the Anaheim dugout. Never mind that Lefebvre was there at the request of Angels analyst Joe Torre; Blyleven was deeply offended. There was, in the pitcher’s mind, only one appropriate response.

“I crawled behind him on my hands and knees,” Blyleven said. “And I not only lit one shoe on fire, I lit them both on fire.” Torre saw it all, but continued the interview as if nothing was happening. As Blyleven retreated to the dugout to enjoy the fruits of his labor, he was dismayed to see that Lefebvre refused to play along. “We all stood there and watched the flames starting,” said Blyleven. “The smoke was starting to come in front of [Lefebvre’s] face, but he was not going to back down. By God, he was going to continue this interview. And Joe was laughing, trying not to roll.”

Torre offered up an apology as soon as the interview wrapped, but Lefebvre was too busy trying to extinguish his feet to pay much attention. He also knew exactly whom to blame. Blyleven, the following day’s starter for the Angels, found out later that Lefebvre offered a hundred dollars to anyone on his team who could hit a line drive off the pitcher’s face. Part of the reason the manager was so angry was that he was deeply superstitious about his shoes; in fact, he continued to wear the scorched pair for several weeks, despite the damage.

In the end, Lefebvre wasn’t the prank’s only dupe. “Bert really screwed me up with that one, because Lefebvre thought I was in on it, and I wasn’t,” said Torre. “Lefebvre didn’t think it was very funny—they were brand-new shoes and he got embarrassed in public. Blyleven was nuts—absolutely nuts.”

So nuts that he made a point of getting people when they didn’t expect it. The dugout benches in the old Yankee Stadium, for example, had enough room for a 6-foot-3, 200-lb. man to crawl underneath them, the better to reach unsuspecting victims. Once, however, the plan backfired.

“I was all ready to give [Indians manager] Pat Corrales a hotfoot,” he said. “We had a nice lead and Corrales was a manager that you could have fun with, so I tried getting him. And just about when I was ready to get him, my feet started burning. Rick Sutcliffe was back there, lighting me up.”

At that point, even the mayor of mischief had to abandon his post. “What else could I do?” he said. “I was on fire.”

– Jason

No-Hitter Etiquette

No-Hitter Etiquette Picks Up Steam in Spate of May Games

Justin Verlander, enjoying the fruits of his accomplishment.

Last week we heard about the superstitious behavior of the Twins as Francisco Liriano worked through his no-hitter against the White Sox.

This week: An additional spate of such behavior as pitchers around the league flirted with their own no-no’s—and in the case of Justin Verlander, actually completed it.

Which seems like a good place to start.

A primary piece of no-hitter etiquette has to do with avoiding the pitcher in any way possible and under no circumstances mentioning the fact of the no-hitter. This happened during Liriano’s feat, but not in Verlander’s—at least as far as the pitcher was concerned.

This is where already having a no-hitter on his resume came in handy. As evidenced by Verlander’s post-game calm, the right-hander felt little of the pressure normally associated with such feats. He went so far as to dissipate dugout nerves himself, seeking out teammates with whom to interact. (No report yet about how those teammates handled it.)

A secondary rule holds that those in the dugout maintain whatever it is they’re doing—sitting in the same seats, flipping a ball up and down, & etc.—since that action is clearly responsible for the events on the field. (In The Baseball Codes, Bob Brenly talks about spending innings on end rapping on the knob of Matt Kata’s bat during Randy Johnson’s perfect game, despite the increasing rawness of his knuckles.)

In Toronto, Verlander’s teammate, Alex Avila, took things a step further, refraining from using the restroom despite an increasing need from the sixth inning on. “I was too afraid to go,” he told the Detroit Free Press.

Even after Verlander completed his feat, Avila was compelled to take part in the celebration, both on the mound and in the clubhouse. It wasn’t until 10 minutes afterward that he was finally able to hit the head.

On the air, Tigers broadcasters Mario Impemba and Rod Allen refused to reference the feat during the game. This is a contentious point, as many in the business feel that a broadcaster’s primary job is to inform the audience about what is going on.

The Detroit duo had at least one defender—Free Press columnist Terry Foster, who wrote about being “stunned” when a fellow parent at his kid’s soccer game told him of Verlander’s feat, in progress. Ultimately, though, he did come around. A little. “I forgive those parents . . . only because it worked out,” he wrote. “We know who to blame if Toronto managed a cheap hit at the end.”

A quick rundown of other would-be no-hitters that didn’t quite reach completion:

  • Jamie Garcia vs. Milwaukee, May 6 (broken up in the eighth): The left-hander was alone by the sixth inning. “What are you going to say? ‘Ain’t this great?’ ” said Tony La Russa in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We all had our thoughts.”
  • Yovani Gallardo vs. St. Louis, May 7 (broken up in the eighth): Same teams as Garcia’s game, different outcome one day later. Gallardo had thrown 104 pitches through seven innings, raising substantial concerns that Brewers manager Ron Roenicke might remove him. In response, fellow starters Randy Wolf and Shaun Marcum stood guard in the dugout. “The other starting pitchers wouldn’t let me take him out,” said Roenicke in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “They put a block on me. I really didn’t have a choice.”
  • Anibal Sanchez vs. Washington, May 8 (broken up in the seventh): Sanchez was over 100 pitches in the seventh, putting Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez in much the same position as Roenicke. “We were paying a lot of attention to the pitch count,” Rodriguez said in the Miami Herald.

Save for Verlander, of course, none of these pitchers was able to finish what he started—developments that had nothing to do with the perpetuation of superstition in their own vigilant dugouts.

Then again, it’s not like it would have mattered.

“If a pitcher tells you he’s not thinking about it, it’s not true,” said Gallardo in reference to people trying to avoid the subject with him. Which is entirely the point.

– Jason