Retaliation

Beanball In B-Town Leads To Blue Jays Brouhaha

The Orioles say that he did it on purpose. He himself said that the pitch got away. Either way leads to the same conclusion: This is what happens when pitchers pitch angry.

Alek Manoah had just given up back-to-back homers in the fourth inning of Saturday’s game, to Baltimore’s Ryan Mountcastle and DJ Stewart, following earlier homers by Mountcastle and Cedric Mullins. The Blue Jays, preseason favorites to contend for a playoff spot, were in fourth place and had lost five in a row, all within their division. The Orioles are the worst team in the American League, yet somehow were beating Manoah all over the field.

Of course he was pitching angry.

Whether he hit the next batter, Maikel Franco, on purpose is unknown, though that certainly appears to be the case. Either way, he did it with his very next pitch after those home runs, and he did it with a fastball, and he did it with the intent of running the pitch inside. Whether that all amounts to good policy is up for debate, but the 23-year-old rookie clearly had some issues to work through.

Maybe it was because of the HBP, maybe it was because Manoah took the extra step of approaching the plate with arms out, in a what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it pose, but benches quickly emptied. Strangely, each team’s coaching staff—particularly Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo, who appeared to say something that set off Orioles skipper Brandon Hyde and coach Fredi Gonzalez—ended up at the heart of the escalation.

Once things settled, umpire Roberto Ortiz tossed Manoah. The decision to do so without prior warning allowed Baltimore a chance to respond in kind—there is zero chance that Ortiz will ever reveal whether this was intentional—which did not end up happening. Given Montoyo’s verbal combativeness during the dustup, this actually comes as something of a surprise.

Before Sunday’s game, a cadre of Blue Jays and Orioles—notably Franco (who’d told reporters a day earlier that he believed his plunking was intentional) and Vlad Guerrero—made a point of hugging it out on the field. The game was played without incident.

Is this harkening in a new era of understanding and appreciation? Not likely, but we sure can enjoy it when we see it.

Update, 6-23: MLB agrees that it was intentional. Manoah was suspended for five games.

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Retaliation, Swinging 3-0

Tony La Russa Endorses Retribution Against His Own Team, Minnesota Obliges

This is how I concluded yesterday’s post about Yermin Mercedes hitting a 3-0 homer off of Willians Astudillo with two outs in the ninth inning of a game that the White Sox led by 11 runs:

If the Twins for some reason decide to retaliate tonight, or if [Tony] La Russa benches Mercedes in some misbegotten stab toward outdated honor, then we’ll be talking about this again tomorrow. More realistically, the enduring optics of one fat guy hitting a homer off of another fat guy, plus the ridiculous nature of the pitching itself, means that this controversy will not likely endure beyond last night’s news cycle. Nor should it.

Guess who’s talking about this again today—so much talk!—for every wrong reason imaginable. When it comes to misbegotten stabs, Tony La Russa has managed to lap the field.

When was the last time a manager slagged his own player to the press, gave tacit approval for the other team to retaliate, and, after said retaliation occurred, claimed publicly that he had no problem with it? More pertinently to the White Sox, when was the last time a manager did any of those things and still had his job at the end of the season?

It started when La Russa shared some thoughts before Tuesday’s game. No surprise: He was upset.

“That’s not a time to swing 3-0,” the manager told reporters before the game, according to an MLB.com report. He called it “sportsmanship and respect for the game and respect for your opponent.” He said that Mercedes “made a mistake.” He called Mercedes “clueless.” Most brazenly, La Russa also said that “there will be a consequence that [Mercedes] has to endure here within our family.”

What the fuck is that about? La Russa was intentionally vague. Could the Twins have taken it as a green light to respond? Of course they could have. Did La Russa know that his comments might be taken as such? If he didn’t, he’s a fool. More likely, that was his intent from the beginning.

With that as the background, it should surprise nobody that, with one out and nobody on in the top of the seventh in a game that the White Sox led, 4-2, Minnesota reliever Tyler Duffey threw a pitch behind Mercedes’ legs. It was clearly intentional. Was he acting alone? Was he following orders? Either answer reflects some overt thuggery. Most enduring was the impression that the most old-school guy in the building, Tony La Russa, orchestrated the entire thing against his own player.

If that actually was his goal—or even if a critical mass of White Sox players think that was his goal—La Russa should just resign now. Few people in that room will listen to him again. Not helping the manager’s cause were postgame comments in which he said things like “I don’t have a problem with how the Twins handled that” and “I didn’t have a problem with what the Twins did.” He outright excused the pitch, saying, “The guy might have just been trying to get a sinker in,” when the guy was clearly not just trying to get a sinker in.

Yes, there’s the fact that Mercedes swung through a take sign on his fateful homer, which is enough to piss off any manager, but come on—managers don’t discuss missed signs during press conferences. La Russa was angry at one thing and one thing only. By leaving things intentionally vague, he gave the Twins all the leeway they needed to respond however they saw fit. (La Russa is 76. Twins skipper Rocco Baldelli is 39, and was born two years after La Russa’s managerial debut. Somehow, they both ended up looking comparably stodgy after this one.)

For those who doubt whether this series of events will cost La Russa in the long run, know that the inevitable avalanche of doubt within the White Sox clubhouse has already begun. After the game, Lance Lynn—Chicago’s best and most veteran pitcher, who’s been around long enough to have played for La Russa in his last managerial job a decade ago—spoke out. While Lynn didn’t overtly criticize his manager, he took a clear position against the La Russa’s entrenched stance.

“The more I play this game, the more those [unwritten] rules have gone away, and I understand it,” the pitcher said in an MLB.com report. “The way I see it is, for position players on the mound, there are no rules. Let’s get the damn game over with. And if you have a problem with whatever happens, then put a pitcher out there. Can’t get mad when there’s a position player on the field and a guy takes a swing.”

And so it begins. La Russa is well on his way to losing that clubhouse, if he hasn’t already.

If there’s a saving grace for him it’s that the White Sox are 25-16, the best record in the American League. Then again, in the first game after the Mercedes Incident, the same one in which Minnesota gratefully accepted La Russa’s offer to throw freely at his own player, Chicago coughed up a four-run lead to the team with baseball’s worst record, and lost, 5-4.

White Sox players deserve to feel better about things than they inevitably do this morning.

Update (5/20): Guess who doesn’t agree with La Russa? Tim Anderson for one. Lucas Giolito for another. For players to publicly contradict their manager on the most visible point he’s made since taking over the club is an ominous sign. And it’s only the beginning.

Update (5/21): Tyler Duffey and Rocco Baldelli were suspended three games for their roles in this. The best part about it was when a guy on Twitter said, “Tony La Russa appealed the decision.”

Update (5/21): CC Sabathia has thoughts, which normally wouldn’t be worth a dedicated update but boy howdy these ones are.

Retaliation, Umpire Warnings

HBP After HBP, The Pitcher Stays In The Game. Welcome To Baseball In 2021

Well, of course Joe Girardi wanted Genesis Cabrera tossed.

With Cabrera’s first pitch of the day, to start the sixth inning, the St. Louis reliever put a 97-mph fastball into Bryce Harper’s face. To judge by the left-hander’s pained response, let alone the fact that it was a 3-3 game with nobody out, there was clearly no intention behind the pitch. Still, it was concerning enough that Cards manager Mike Shildt said later that maybe he should have replaced Cabrera at that point.

But he didn’t. And with his very next pitch, Cabrera punched Didi Gregorius into the dirt with a fastball to the ribs. Again, the pitcher’s body language said it all: this was no grudge-settling moment, only a struggling ballplayer being completely lost on the mound.

This is when Girardi emerged from the dugout to have his say. He wanted Cabrera ejected not because he felt that Phillies hitters were being targeted, but because Phillies hitters weren’t being targeted, and they were getting hit anyway. And with baseball’s new three-batter minimum mandate in effect, the only way to get Cabrera out of there before he had a chance to drill somebody else was for an umpire to toss him.

What really got under Girardi’s skin, though, was an ages-old dilemma for which baseball has uncovered few good answers: Following Gregorius’ plunking, both benches were warned. Should any flames be further fanned, ejections would come hard and heavy.

The anti-escalation intent behind the warning was obvious. The practicality of the matter, however, was quite different. On one hand, Girardi and his pitchers were banished from any measure of retaliation. Given the rarity of such measures in today’s game, let alone the unintentional nature of the HBPs, it is questionable whether such a warning was necessary. Still, should anybody in the Philadelphia dugout be so inclined, they will now have to wait for an appropriate moment later in the season, at which time fire will emerge from both benches as if it had never been extinguished in the first place.

From The Baseball Codes:

Another downside of the warning system—in which an umpire sensing trouble issues a cease-and-desist order to both dugouts, with immediate ejection for both player and manager should any violation occur—is that it negates the time-tested practice of checks and balances. Once a warning is issued, retaliation is essentially legislated out of the game. This increases the risk of lingering bad feelings without an appropriate way to channel them. Some managers even go so far as to instruct their pitchers to take the first shot in a bad-blood situation quickly, which basically gives their team a free pass before warnings are issued and the business of tit-for-tat is shut down for the night.

“It was a lot better [under the old rules],” said longtime Braves man­ager Bobby Cox. “It was over with and done. Guys knew to expect it, and it was done right. We still do it, but you’ve really got to pick your spots.”

More pertinently, probably, was that the Phillies, who had done nothing wrong, were now playing under the same restrictions as the Cardinals—specifically, any pitcher wishing to come inside had to consider the ramifications should he miss by a hair too much. Such a mindframe is not beneficial to quality pitching.

And so Girardi raved. And plate ump Chris Segal tossed him.

Who Segal did not toss was Cabrera, who made it three pitches into Andrew McCutchen’s at-bat before serving up an RBI single, at which point, quota fulfilled, Shildt yanked him from the game.

Those wondering just how fired up the Phillies were about all of this needn’t look too far. Rhys Hoskins spent long minutes staring daggers toward the Cardinals after Gregorius was drilled, and Sam Coonrod, after pitching the eighth, yelled and pointed toward the St. Louis bench.

In their postgame comments, the Cardinals did their best to smooth relations between the clubs. Cabrera was contrite, saying, “I want to again apologize for all of the action that happened, especially to Harper …The game got away from me at that point. I’m really sorry for everything that happened today. None of it was intentional.”

Shildt went so far as to compliment Girardi’s tirade. “I completely understand their aggressive response,” he said. “Joe handled it appropriately. I can’t speak for him, but he has to stand up for his guys.” The manager went on in respectful and understanding tones about the Phillies’ discontent, and made sure to claim lack of intent behind either HBP.

Notably, Shildt also said that he would have yanked Cabrera immediately after Harper’s HBP had rules not prevented him from doing so. Now umpires have one more wrinkle to consider in the same spirit as bench warnings: Those times when ejecting a pitcher for his own good might actually serve to cool tensions from both sides of the field.

Retaliation

Non-Contact Suspension Leads To Questions About What MLB Has In Store

MLB has suspended Cubs reliever Ryan Tepera three games (and manager David Ross for one game) for throwing behind the legs of Milwaukee’s Brandon Woodruff on Thursday. On one hand, it’s an admirable effort to tamp down on-field animosity between teams before things spiral out of control.

On the other hand, it’s ludicrous.

There is much to criticize when it comes to the frontier-justice mentality of baseball’s unwritten rules, especially as pertains to pitchers drilling hitters. Tepera, though, picked a well-traveled middle lane, sending a message while offering no actual threat of harm.

This has been a trusted tactic in the major leagues since pretty much forever. Some recent examples:

Pittsburgh’s Chris Archer used it to protest a home run pimp job by Derek Dietrich that led to some on-field fireworks in 2019.

LA’s Joe Kelley used it to express his displeasure with the Astros’ sign stealing against the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series.

The Rangers did it to Manny Machado following Fernando Tatis’ infamous 3-0 swing in 2018.

Noah Syndergaard threw behind Chase Utley in 2016 to protest Utley’s takeout of Ruben Tejada during the previous season’s playoffs, bringing us the effervescent “ass in the jackpot” comment from umpire Tom Hallion. (Syndergaard was ejected due to the high-profile nature of the situation, but that’s very different than a league suspension.)

Sure, the rationale behind some of these events—particularly the one involving Tatis—is inane, but the idea holds: Pitchers standing up for their teammates by sending a non-impact message. No harm, no foul, right?

Not according to MLB. Tepera’s tactic has officially been put onto the no-fly list, sending a message to every team that even the small stuff will no longer be tolerated. It’s admirable in theory, but it sets baseball up for at least two scenarios in which things will get hinky:

  • It removes the power of response. Kneecapping a team’s ability to answer to liberties taken by the opposition—especially when it comes to responses that do not actually put players into harm’s way—seems rife with unintended consequences. Instead, teams might explore other avenues that fall more firmly into the gray area of accountability. Extra-hard tags? Takeout slides that adhere to the league rules while being extra vicious? Or will we simply enter the era of the extra-saucy revenge home-run pimp? We’ll find out.
  • Given the league’s willingness to put the hammer down on non-contact pitches, MLB will now be faced with dilemmas over how to respond to actual hit batters in situations where the pitcher has a degree of plausible deniability. More than ever baseball will have to judge intent via punative action that to this point it been extremely hesitant to engage, for good reason. The moment that pitchers start getting suspended for pitches that inadvertently run too far inside is the moment that pitchers stop pitching inside altogether, and baseball changes fundamentally.

It’ll be interesting to see how MLB handles yesterday’s incident in Chicago, in which Cleveland pitcher Aaron Civale hit Adam Eaton after Eaton’s minor dust-up with middle infielder Andrés Giménez, who he felt pushed him off the bag during a play at second base.

Maybe this is a whole lot of nothing, an anomalous blip on baseball’s disciplinary radar. In a world in which MLB is checking baseballs for pine tar and embracing rules changes the likes of which would have been unfathomable a decade ago, however, anything is possible. Look out.

Retaliation

Contreras Responds To Inside Pitching With Bat And Attitude Both

The Willson Contreras saga continues. What to make of a guy who gets hit so much and is willing to spark a benches-clearing incident over it despite leaning out over the plate like nobody’s business to the point that he led the big leagues with 14 HBPs last season?

Pertinent among those plunkings were four from the Brewers, who have hit Contreras more over the last two seasons than any team has hit any batter. The trend continued in unfortunate fashion last week, when defending NL Rookie of the Year Devin Williams fired a fastball into Contreras’ helmet. When the Brewers drilled Contreras again a day later—this time the batter all but leaned into an inside fastball—it reached the limits of the hitter’s tolerance, Contreras approaching the mound to deliver a verbal warning to the pitcher.

Yesterday it was more of the same, with Contreras being hit by the Brewers again. This time he rotated into an inside fastball from Brandon Woodruff to such a degree that Milwaukee argued he swung at the pitch. As clearly unintentional as it may have been, the Cubs were finally inspired to respond, with reliever Ryan Tepera throwing a 95-mph fastball behind Woodruff’s legs in the fifth inning. Woodruff was pissed, and benches were warned.

The real response came from Contreras himself, who in the eighth hit a key two-run homer off of reliever Brent Suter in what would be a 3-2 Chicago victory. And oh, the ensuing celebration.

There was the spin and disdainful underhanded toss of the bat toward the Cubs dugout. There was the finger raised skyward most of the way from first base to second. There was the series of finger-to-the-lips shhhhhh’s delivered to the crowd between second and third. There was the arms-wide-to-the-sky just steps past third, and then the hand clap, and then the crossing of the chest, and then literally walking the last five steps to the plate.  

In case the message wasn’t clear enough, Contreras spelled things out for reporters after the game. “It feels good to shut [the crowd] up,” he said. “We sent a message. I think they picked the wrong guy to throw at. That was a message sent.”

For a full accounting, it was also a message sent to Contreras’ teammates, who haven’t exactly been setting the basepaths aflame this season. Through their first 10 games the Cubs accumulated a total of 49 hits—their fewest over any 10 game span since 1901. Prior to Contreras’ homer on Tuesday, Chicago’s only run had scored on a sacrifice fly.

For now, things appear to be even, though with Contreras leaning over the plate and the Brewers having publicly stated their willingness to attack his weakest offensive zone—up and in—there’s a very real chance that things will ratchet up again before too long.

“There’s a lot more games coming up,” Contreras said after Tuesday’s contest. “Who knows what’s going to happen?”

The teams meet again today, and again for a three-game series in Chicago later next week.

Intimidation, Retaliation

Flex Time In Cincy Ends In Ludicrous Suspension

Nick Castellanos dislikes getting hit by pitches, and was in especially fine form on Saturday in that regard. There are plenty of cues pointing toward why his drilling by St. Louis reliever Jake Woodford may have been intentional. It was the first pitch of an at-bat (check) that came with two outs and nobody on base (check and check) after the Cards had already been forced to dip into their bullpen in the third inning (not necessarily a check, but let’s go with it anyway). There’s also the detail that the quickest way for a rookie like Woodford to ingratiate himself with veteran teammates is to carry out retaliatory strikes on their behalf. Also, it sure looked intentional.

Why would Woodford be gunning for Castellanos? Could be that the right-hander—or some of his teammates—was ticked off about Catstellano’s home run pimping from opening day. (Are we in for another season of random pitchers throwing fits over Letting the Kids Play? Might could be.)

After being hit by a fastball, Castellanos chatted with St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina, took his time removing his PPE and went out of his way for the unnecessary step of offering the ball back to Woodford. Was that disrespectful? Some in the St. Louis dugout thought so. More on that in a moment.

Castellanos went to third on a single and scored on a wild pitch, after which he made sure to flex over Woodford, who was on the ground after covering the plate on the play. That was likely where things would have ended had everybody let it play out. Apart from the play itself, Castellanos didn’t touch Woodford, and was returning to his dugout when Molina raced over and shoved him from behind. Why? According to starting pitcher Adam Wainwright, it was all about offering the ball back to Woodford. “That’s tired,” Wainwright said after the game.

Nothing much came of Molina’s shove save for some action in the outfield that cropped up among relief pitchers. Castellanos was ejected, but Molina—despite being the one getting physical—remained in the game. Crew chief Jim Reynolds explained the decision as Castellanos having “re-engaged the pitcher in unnecessary fashion.” So he was tossed for showboating, which is either a one-off Jim Reynolds thing or a new directive from MLB.

The league’s official response—suspending Castellanos for two games—further muddies the waters. Given that neither Woodford (whose intent behind the pitch is under legitimate question) or Molina (the guy who shoved first) were similarly suspended is beyond logic. Beyond his initial flex, Castellanos was effectively a bystander for the ensuing melee. These decisions lead to questions about whether Castellanos’ actions would have been worthy of ejection or suspension had Molina not made things physical, and how this precedent all might affect similar judgement calls in the future.

Nothing further came of the incident in Sunday’s series closer, but it’s a long season. These teams face each other 16 more times, including again later this month.

Castellanos may have gotten boned by the league ruling, but at least he came up with the line of the day. In response to a question about Molina having shoved him, he said: “That guy could punch me in the face and I’d still ask him for a signed jersey.”

Retaliation

Today’s Lesson: You Can’t Slow Acuña, But You Can Wake The Braves

Ronald Acuña homered on the second pitch of yesterday’s Game 1 of the NLDS and pimped it, and the Marlins drilled him in response. How stupid is that? Let’s count the ways.

* Miami plunked Acuña with nobody on and one out in the third inning, while holding a 4-1 lead. It was still anybody’s game, and gave the Braves a baserunner with the heart of their order coming up.

* Plate ump Andy Fletcher warned both dugouts, which pissed off Braves skipper Brian Snitker, but more importantly seemed to fluster Marlins pitcher Sandy Alcantara—and almost certainly affected his willingness to work inside. Sure enough, two batters later, Marcel Ozuna doubled Acuña home. The next hitter, Travis d’Arnaud, doubled home Ozuna, reducing Miami’s lead to 4-3.

* With Alcantara still on the mound in the seventh, Acuña continued to be angry. With one on and nobody out, he singled sharply to center field. That ended Alcantara’s night and began a six-run rally that iced the game for Atlanta.

There is, of course, a history here. In 2018, Acuña homered eight times in eight games, including five straight—three of which came leading off against the Marlins. Miami pitcher Jose Urena responded by drilling him in the elbow. Earlier this season, Urena hit Acuña again, making five times in all that Marlins pitchers have drilled the guy. Nobody else has done it more than twice.  

Alcantara’s ensuing claims of unintentionality are believable (Snitker himself, “guarantee(s) he wasn’t trying to hit him”), but it comes with a caveat. To counter a guy who is hitting .318/.414/.645 with 17 homers and 44 RBIs against them—by far his best numbers against any team—Miami has taken to pitching Acuña consistently inside. In their view, hitting him on occasion simply comes with the territory.

That doesn’t mean that the Braves have to like it. Pitchers who play inside must have the control to do so effectively, especially during the postseason, when issuing free baserunners frequently ends badly. Acuña is clearly fed up with it, and while he had the presence of mind yesterday to avoid getting tossed from the game over it, there are sure to be repercussions.

One of them involves the Marlins being down a game in the series. They’ve been pitching Acuña inside for years, and he continues to pummel them. Maybe try something different in Game 2, Miami.

Bat Flipping, Retaliation

All-Time Bat Flip Draws Old School Response From Team That Proclaims To Be Beyond Such Things When It’s Their Guy Doing The Flipping

To judge by Friday’s game, the White Sox aren’t so big on the golden rule. Willson Contreras did unto them, unleashing a monster bat flip after homering in the third inning, and they responded by drilling the Cubs catcher in the back four innings later.

Sure, every party on the South Side denied intent. Manager Rick Renteria said that the pitch got away from reliever Jimmy Cordero. Cordero said that “the ball sunk a lot” and “was just a bad pitch.”

Said “sinker,” of course, was 98 mph and connected with Contreras’s upper back. It came with nobody on base, in the seventh inning of a game that the White Sox trailed, 7-0. There was no tail to it, just straight-line execution. It looked intentional from the moment it left Cordero’s hand.

Part of the issue here is the notion of drilling anybody for bat flipping in the modern climate. Contreras didn’t stare anybody down or show anybody up; to the contrary, he was looking directly at his teammates in the first-base dugout when he let loose his lumber.

The other part of the issue is that the modern climate exists thanks in huge part to a guy standing in the White Sox dugout when this all went down. Tim Anderson, of course, was at the center of a massive controversy last April, when he received similar treatment from the Royals for a bat flip of his own. At that time, the White Sox party line included defending Anderson’s rights to celebrate as he saw fit. This did not go unnoticed by the Cubs on Friday.

“All the hype was on the guy on the other side when [Anderson] bat-flipped, and we just let him play, right?” said Cubs manager David Ross afterward, in an NBC Chicago report. “I thought Tim Anderson’s bat flip last year, where he flipped it and looked in his dugout, that’s what you want. And that’s exactly what Willson did. He bat-flipped. It wasn’t to disrespect the other group. … Probably not my style if I’m playing, but these guys need a little bit of an edge. I don’t think he deserved to get hit at all. I don’t think you ever throw at somebody on purpose. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“I knew it was coming,” Contreras said afterward, in an MLB.com report, adding that there was nothing wrong with what he did. “I celebrated with my teammates,” he said. “I got pumped up. I wear my emotions below my sleeves. That was one thing that I did. I have no regrets—zero regrets.”

Umpires ejected Cordero, which raised the White Sox hackles, possibly because there had been no prior warning. Renteria and pitching coach Don Cooper ended up ejected, as well.

So now we’re left to wonder where the line is drawn, even against the bat-flippingest team in the land. Not everybody on every roster shares similar feelings about every issue, of course, but even those members of the White Sox with a distaste for that brand of showmanship must recognize that the face of their franchise is also the face of the entire Let the Kids Play movement. And that bears significant weight.

Renteria seemed to spell it out pretty clearly after Anderson’s bat-flip controversy last year, describing his player’s actions in almost the same terms that Ross did on Friday.

“Everybody has those ‘unwritten rules,’ everybody has their own, I guess,” he said last April, in a Chicago Sun-Times report. “Timmy wasn’t showing them up or showing the pitcher up, he was looking into our dugout, getting the guys going.”

But the manager didn’t stop there. Renteria then laid down a rule that his team in no way followed yesterday.

“Get him out,” he said. “You want him to not do that? Get him out.”

In retrospect, there’s nothing golden about that.

Update (9-26-20): Renteria and Cordero have both been suspended.

Retaliation

‘It Sounds Like They’re Going To Throw At Us Tomorrow. We’ll Be Ready’

It’s a funny thing, this COVID baseball. Some guys can’t seem to remember to wear a mask or stay within the perimeter of the team hotel, but when it comes to responding to past injustices they’re a bunch of goddamn elephants. Never forget a thing.

That is why, when Masahiro Tanaka pitched inside to Joey Wendle with two outs in the first inning of yesterday’s Yankees-Rays game, then drilled him with his next pitch (which, at 95 mph, was the hardest he threw all night by a considerable margin) nobody had to question what was happening.

The intent was clear. Tanaka has walked four batters this season over six starts. Wendle was the first one he’s hit. The question was, why?

Well, a day earlier the first pitch thrown by Tampa Bay starter Tyler Glasnow had been up and in to D.J. LeMahieu—the latest in a pattern that has seen Rays pitchers working the Yankees, and LeMahieu in particular, inside all season long. That might have been it. Or maybe somehow the Yankees are still sore about the time late in 2018 when Rays reliever Andrew Kitteridge threw a retaliatory fastball at Austin Romine’s head (and missed). That seems like old news, especially given that C.C. Sabathia responded in spectacular fashion the following day, but people keep talking about it so maybe it’s still a thing.

Something that almost undoubtedly contributed is the fact that Tampa Bay has kicked the snot out of the Yankees this year, winning seven out of eight games prior to Tuesday night. Is that the difference in the American League East? Hell yeah, it is.

Maybe Tanaka just wanted to change the tone.

To his credit, Tanaka went by the unwritten rulebook and plunked Wendle in the backside. Wendle took it well, smiling in recognition as he trotted to first base—as did the rest of the Rays, who didn’t force the issue as the game progressed.

That’s where things stood until the ninth, when Aroldis Chapman, in to protect a 5-3 lead, threw his second pitch to Wendle up and in, at 95 mph. After Wendle grounded out to first, Chapman’s second pitch to the next hitter, Austin Meadows, was also up and in, this time at 99 mph. Meadows eventually lined out. This seemed like a message. It’s also where things took a turn.

With two outs and nobody on base, Chapman’s first pitch to Mike Brosseau was a 101-mph fastball that barely missed the batter’s head, Brosseau ducking out of the way in the nick of time. Chapman stalked down the mound toward the plate, all but daring Brosseau to respond. The umpires quickly intervened, warning both benches.

After Chapman struck out Brosseau to end the game, the Yankees dugout did a bit of yelling (much of it from third base coach Phil Neven, as is frequently the case). Yelling, in fact, seems to be a theme between these teams this season. Last month at Tropicana Field, reports had Nevin shouting “Get him out of there” every time a Rays coach visited the mound. Yesterday, Tampa Bay’s Mike Zunino shouted something similar after James Paxton gave up back-to-back homers to tie the score in the seventh. With no fans in the stands, sound carries this season. Maybe that set Chapman off.  

Brousseau responded to the chirping and dugouts quickly emptied, even as “New York, New York” blared over the Yankee Stadium PA. At least nobody actually came into contact with the other team. Some players even remembered to wear masks.

There are obvious questions about what this all means going forward. After the game, Rays manager Kevin Cash amplified them with the biggest megaphone he could find, calling the situation “ridiculous,” “mishandled by the Yankees” and “mishandled by the umpires.”

“They hit Joey Wendle intentionally in the first inning,” he fumed. “It was clear as day. Chapman comes in, he throws three different balls up and in. I get it—they don’t like being thrown up-and-in. But enough’s enough. We’re talking about a 100-mph fastball over a young man’s head. It’s poor judgment. Poor coaching. It’s just poor teaching, what they’re doing, and what they’re allowing to do. The chirping from the dugout.”

Strong opinions, to be sure, but nothing too out of the ordinary. Then Cash said this: “I’ve got a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 mph. Period.”

Threat registered. “It sounds like they’re going to try to throw at us tomorrow,” LeMahieu said. “We’ll be ready.”

The teams meet today for the final time this regular season. Even with umpires on high alert, given what we’ve seen so far, this confrontation is far from finished.

Update 9/2: Punishment has been levied: Chapman docked three games plus a fine for throwing at somebody’s head; Boone suspended one game because Chapman is an idiot; and Cash suspended one game for his postgame threat.

Update 2, 9/2: Brosseau got his revenge on Wednesday, hitting two homers and doing this:

Let The Kids Play, Swinging 3-0

Rangers Don’t Dig Tatis’ Tater, Fuel Controversy Over How (Or Whether) To Respond To Blowout Tactics

Yesterday, Fernando Tatis Jr. hit a grand slam and the internet lost its damn mind.

It wasn’t the homer that did it, of course, it was the response … something to do with the unwritten rules.

In this case, circumstances matter. It was the top of the eighth inning, the bases were loaded and the Padres were leading Texas by seven runs (thanks in part to a three-run homer by Tatis an inning earlier). Pertinent to this discussion, Tatis’ fateful shot came on a 3-0 pitch. The Rangers didn’t know it at the time, but the young slugger had missed (or ignored) a take sign from his coach.

With that, Rangers manager Chris Woodward removed pitcher Juan Nicasio, inserted pitcher Ian Gibault, and watched as Gibault threw a pitch behind the next batter, Manny Machado. Message delivered. (No warnings were issued, and no other pitches came close to hitting anybody.)

After the game, Woodward addressed the issue directly. “I think there’s a lot of unwritten rules that are constantly being challenged in today’s game,” he said. “I didn’t like it, personally. You’re up by seven in the eighth inning; it’s typically not a good time to swing 3-0. It’s kind of the way we were all raised in the game.”

This is the point at which Woodward, and baseball in general, tends to lose touch with its fan base. What in the hell was the manager talking about, cried the majority opinion? Why should one of the sport’s brightest young stars be expected to do anything other than bright-young-star things, regardless of the situation?

It’s complicated. The rationale starts with pitchers, not hitters. During a blowout, nobody in either dugout wants to see the pace grind nearly to a halt while a pitcher tries to finesse the edges of the strike zone, especially while down in the count. From The Baseball Codes:

The last thing a pitcher wants to do with his team down by a wide margin late in the game is walk batters, which not only suggests unnecessary nibbling but extends a game that players want to end quickly. When a count gets to 3-0 … it’s a near-certainty that the ensuing pitch will be a fastball down the middle.

At which point pitchers are expected (or were once expected, anyway) to throw something straight that will get the game moving again. For that one-pitch adjustment, hitters are expected (or were once expected) to lay off. As Sparky Anderson said in a New York Times report: “You don’t cherry-pick on the other team. You don’t take cripples. Three-oh, he’s struggling, he’s got to lay the ball in there. Don’t do it to the man. He’s got a family, too.”

Then again, Anderson said that back in 1993, which may as well have been 1893 as far as the evolution of the unwritten rules is concerned. The sport in which Anderson managed bears little resemblance to the modern game in numerous ways. A prominent aspect of this evolution is showboating, bat flips and the like, which once would have been certain to draw a pitcher’s attention but are now mostly background noise.

Swinging 3-0 is not quite the same thing, but it’s in the same ballpark.

It does happen from time to time. Last year, Twins outfielder Jake Cave swung 3-0 while his Twins led 13-5 in the ninth, and connected for a single. The next hitter, Max Kepler, saw three inside pitches and was drilled by the fourth.

Here’s the catch: The team doing the responding—the team at the wrong end of Cave’s swing—was Chris Woodward’s Texas Rangers. Woodward, it appears, is no stranger to having his pitchers mete out punishment for those who he feels cross a line, and swinging 3-0 is a prominent one for him.

(There are plenty of non-Woodward examples, as well. In 2017, Corey Seager swung 3-0 with a 5-0 lead, and before long teams were brawling on the field. In 2012, Jayson Werth swung 3-0 and benches emptied. In 2011, David Ortiz’s 3-0 swing helped lead to another fight. In the past, I’ve covered incidents from Davey Lopes, Vladimir Guerrero and Gary Sheffield. Hell, in 2001, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, fresh from Japan and unaware of this particular rule, was drilled for swinging 3-0 … and missing. Hell, Corey Kluber doesn’t even like it when guys swing hard against him, regardless of the count.)

Yesterday, the response from the Padres was less about the retaliatory pitch from Texas than with their own shortstop. On the telecast, cameras caught Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer—30 years old and a 10-year vet—telling various Rangers that “we’ll talk to him.” Sure enough, Hosmer sat Tatis down for a dugout conversation. Later, San Diego manager Jayce Tingler talked to reporters about the importance of getting signs correctly, called it “a learning opportunity,” and said “[Tatis] will grow from it.” (Prior to taking over the Padres, Tingler worked in the Rangers organization since 2007. The guess here is that he knows precisely what it will take to avoid bad blood with that team.)

But what about Tatis himself? On one hand, he’s 21 years old, in only his second season and hails from the Dominican Republic, where a freewheeling, unfettered brand of baseball is the norm. On the other, he grew up learning the major league game from his father, whose own big league career ran from 1999 to 2010, when Jr. was 11 years old.

“I’ve been in this game since I was a kid,” Tatis Jr. said after the game. “I know a lot of unwritten rules. I was kind of lost on this. … Those experiences, you have to learn. Probably next time, I’ll take a pitch.”

This is just another example of baseball needing to get a handle on outdated concepts of ballplayer decorum. Developing an entire promotional campaign—Let the Kids Play—around the idea of unfettered joy on a ballfield is fine … right up until an angry pitcher disagrees and responds to a bat flip with some questionable behavior. Somehow, Woodward’s Rangers have been involved in those fights as well.

The reason that most pitchers no longer care about bat flips is that bat flipping has been divorced from the meaning it once held. It is now seen as a joyous act, not a disrespectful one.

Swinging 3-0 during a blowout holds deeper connotations, but ultimately the concept is the same. Either we let the kids play, or we don’t. When Sparky Anderson told the Times that, as pertains to swinging 3-0, “there is a thing in this game—honor—that will always stay with me and I’ll never give it up,” he was speaking from a different era.

At some point, baseball has to make up its mind. Until it does, this cultural dissonance of blowback against young stars doing things that the public wants to see is going to continue until everybody’s so frustrated that they turn their backs altogether. This is a problem that baseball is already trying to counter; it led to Let the Kids Play in the first place.  

“I love this game, and I respect the game a lot,” Tatis said after the game. “I feel like every time I go out there, I just wanna feel respect for everybody else. … This game is hard for everyone, so why not just celebrate and have fun the way you wanna have fun?”

It was the smartest thing anybody said all day.