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.”

 

Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Internalizing a Horrible Outing Takes Different Shapes for Different People, or: Emotional Atunement Might Not Be For Everybody

Mariners Rangers

Two games in, and we got beef. For the Mariners, it’s entirely justified.

Reliever Tom Wilhelmsen—with Seattle for the first five seasons of his career, but as of last November a member of the Rangers—did not have a good game. After entering in the eighth inning with his team trailing, 4-2, he did this:

  • First batter, Robinson Cano: first-pitch homer.
  • Second batter, Nelson Cruz: double.
  • Third batter, Kyle Seager: double.
  • Fourth batter, Seth Smith: first-pitch homer.

For his encore, the frustrated right-hander drilled the inning’s fifth hitter, Chris Ianetta, with his first pitch. The 94-mph fastball, which ran straight into Ianetta’s hamstring, was as clear a message of frustration as can be delivered on a ballfield. (Watch it here.)

Ianetta stormed to first base, screaming toward the mound as Seattle’s dugout tentatively emptied. The most noteworthy part of the scrum was each team’s manager shouting F-bombs at the other.

This in itself is noteworthy inasmuch as Mariners manager Scott Servais is in his first year at the helm of a big league club and may well have seen this as an excuse to set tone, letting his team know that he’s looking out for them in every facet of the game. Texas skipper Jeff Bannister, even more fiery during the confrontation, is in his second year and likely felt similarly.

There’s little to justify Wilhelmsen’s action. It was once acceptable baseball practice to drill a guy for his teammates’ success. Hell, it took far less provocation than two homers and two doubles. The modern game, however, is less tolerant of violent  acts, and the weak sauce ladled out by Wilhelmsen has become patently unacceptable. (Umpire  Marvin Hudson agreed, ejecting the pitcher.)

At least Wilhelmsen handled things as well as he could after the game without crossing the line of actually admitting to anything. When he was asked whether anything in particular angered Ianetta, he managed to say, “Probably the fact that I hit him,” with a straight face.

Yep. Lotta baseball left to play this season.

 

Gamesmanship, Retaliation

On the Merits of Asking For Time, and Reasoned Responses to Same

Weaver - Seager

Jered Weaver meltdowns tend to be memorable affairs. In 2011 it was a blowout with Detroit, after Carlos Guillen admired a homer while staring Weaver down.

Compared to that, Kyle Seager is a downright choirboy.

In the fifth inning yesterday, Seager did what Seager does, settling into the batter’s box while holding his left hand toward the umpire, asking for time while he adjusted and readjusted himself. It’s standard fare for the third baseman, but Weaver questioned him, and everything stopped. (It’s not like the Weaver hadn’t already faced the guy 35 times over the years. No, wait a minute … it’s exactly like that.) Weaver shouted at Seager. Seager shouted at Weaver. Then the hitter got back into the box and called time again.

So Weaver drilled him.

It was an 83 mph fastball, placed appropriately. Seager wasn’t the only one to get the message; plate ump Brian O’Nora tossed Weaver on the spot.

In Weaver’s defense, he doesn’t get upset over nothing. Back in 2011, Guillen had been the second Tigers hitter to pimp a homer on the day, and was clearly trying to show the pitcher up. Seager is similarly culpable; the fact that he gets away with asking for time with both feet planted firmly in the batter’s box doesn’t mean it should be done. Set feet are a universal signal for let’s play ball, and expecting personally tailored rules is certain to rile some people.

That said, Weaver’s reactions in both situations were poor—and undoubtedly compounded by the fact that he wasn’t pitching well in either game. On Wednesday he’d given up six hits, a walk and three runs in four-and-two-thirds innings, and would likely have topped 80 pitches had he made it to the end of the fifth. Seager was on the money when he told the Los Angeles Daily News, “If you hit me there it was pretty obvious what was going to happen, he was going to be out of the game. I guess he was tired of pitching.”

Score this one for Seager, as well as for the rest of the American League, which now fully realizes that Weaver’s head offers easy access when the chips are down.

No-Hitter Etiquette

No-No-No-No-No-No in Seattle Leaves at Least a Couple People Confused

Remember all those conversations people were having just last week about whether one could justifiably pull a pitcher in the middle of his own no-hitter? Sometimes it’s a moot point.

On Friday, Seattle’s Kevin Milwood tossed six no-hit innings against the Dodgers, then strained his groin while warming up prior to the seventh. Five Mariners relievers followed with three more innings of no-hit ball. (It was the 10th combined no-hitter in big league history; the latest—Houston’s defeat of the Yankees in 2003—also had six, and also had a starter, Roy Oswalt, depart early after an injury.)

Several noteworthy slices of Code cropped up in the process. One of the most popular refrains from those decrying the dreaded no-hitter jinx stipulation, which mandates that the feat must not be spoken about until it is completed, is that there’s no way a pitcher in the middle of a no-hitter has somehow failed to realize that he’s in the middle of a no-hitter.

Improbably, though, Seattle reliever Tom Wilhelmsen failed to realize exactly that. Wilhelmsen, who closed out the game for the Mariners, was eventually informed of the circumstances by his catcher.

“I told him, ‘Man, you threw a no-hitter!'” said Jesus Montero, in an ESPN report. “And he didn’t know! Unbelievable.”

Wilhelmsen tried to add some nuance to the claim. “Well, I mean, I knew what was going on,” he said. “But no, I have a brain fart every so often and just focused so hard on getting one thing done. It’s not like you forget, but it’s like you put it off to the side. And then it’s like, ‘Holy cow, we just did it,’ and Montero is in my arms.”

To be fair, five pitching changes can distract from the execution of a fairly unique feat; Wilhelmsen wasn’t the only one who lost track of things.

“Coming into the ninth, it wasn’t really on my mind . . .” said Seattle shortstop Brendan Ryan, who entered in the ninth as a defensive replacement. “It kind of took five seconds or so to sink in. ‘Wait a minute. Wait a minute. There were no hits. That’s a no-hitter!'”

That said, not everybody was so clueless. Reliever Stephen Pryor (who was credited with the victory after pitching to all of one batter recording all of one out), told the Seattle Times that, Wilhelmsen apparently aside, they were aware of it in the bullpen. “We knew, but we weren’t talking about it,” he said. “We didn’t want to jinx it.”

Someone who very clearly didn’t mind jinxing it was Dodgers shortstop Dee Gordon, who tried to bunt for a hit in the fourth inning. While some take this topic—breaking up a no-hitter with a bunt—very seriously, Gordon has facts on his side. For one, it was only the fourth inning—far to early to consider the deed sacrosanct, even for the likes of Bob Brenly. For another, speed makes up nearly the entirety of Gordon’s offensive game; beating out bunts is what he does, so to assume he’d suddenly table one of his strengths in a close game is far from reasonable. The score was only 1-0, so even if Gordon had tried it in the eighth, he would likely have not drawn much protest from the Mariners.

No word yet about whether Seattle players took it upon themselves to avoid all six pitchers in the dugout for fear of the mighty jinx. Seems like a tall order.

No-Hitter Etiquette, Philip Humber

Man, There are a Lot of Things One is Supposed to do During the Course of a No-Hitter

In the wake of Philip Humber’s perfect game on Saturday, the Code-chronicling community (we’re small, but mighty) was left to look for peculiarities in the action. While there have so far been no earth-shattering revelations, assorted items have been mentioned in passing in various accounts of the action:

  • White Sox players did indeed give the pitcher some space on the bench as the game unfolded, moving “farther and farther away from Humber as he approached history, leaving him alone,” according to the Associated Press.
  • Some on the bench, however, did mention the deed, though not to Humber directly. From the Chicago Sun-Times: After the eighth inning, A.J. Pierzynski turned to Sox pitcher Jake Peavy and said, ‘Man, I’m nervous.’ ” (The man already had some history with no-hitter etiquette.)
  • Humber’s not one to buy into the silence-is-golden rule. From his post-game press conference: “I don’t believe in superstitions or anything like that, so when guys were getting hits or scoring runs, I was shaking their hands, and when they’d make plays in the field I was telling them, great job. I don’t like to be isolated like that. I like to stay in the game, and be relaxed, and be a teammate.”
  • White Sox manager Robin Ventura does not necessarily agree. Also from the post-game presser: “I still haven’t talked to him—I still have that superstition. I was staying away from him.”
  • Which doesn’t mean that superstition rules all of Ventura’s decisions. While some feel that nothing should be changed during the course of a no-hitter, Ventura inserted Brent Lillibridge in left field in the bottom of the eighth as a defensive replacement for Dayan Viciedo. With one out, Kyle Seager laced a drive down the line, which Lillibridge—significantly speedier than Viciedo—caught up to without much effort.
  • At which point it should be noted that the White Sox’s previous perfecto—tossed by Mark Buehrle in 2009—was saved by a ninth-inning circus catch by Dewayne Wise against the center field wall. Wise had been inserted for defensive purposes in the top of the inning.
  • Munenori Kawasaki tried to bunt his way on with two outs in the sixth and a 3-0 score. Kawasaki is in his first season in the big leagues after a lengthy career in Japan. I am unclear about how this type of thing is viewed over there.
  • Finally, Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims was hardly shy about mentioning the words “no-hitter” and “perfect game” through the later innings. Granted, Sims doesn’t work for the White Sox, but he has precedent on his side when it comes to his stance in such situations. (Funny how broadcasters take heat if a pitcher blows a no-hitter after they’ve talked about it, but the broadcast jinx is rarely mentioned if the pitcher completes his gem under similar circumstances.)

If more arises from this in coming days, I’ll tack it on here.

Update (4-24): Larry Stone has a column up over at the Seattle Times, in which he speaks with five people who were at the game. No real new information, just another measure of awe from one of the best in the business.

Don't Showboat, Foreign players, Yoenes Cespedes, Yoenes Cespedes

Watch and Learn: Cespedes’ First Code Lesson

Last weekend brought us this season’s first incident of a foreign player being brought quickly up to speed with this country’s baseball mores. It also brought us the lesson that reticence doesn’t always count for a whole lot.

The student: Oakland outfielder Yoenes Cespedes, who on Friday pummeled a Jason Vargas fastball 462 feet, the ball landing above the luxury suites in left-center field at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum—a blast impressive enough to inspire the hitter to stand and watch it fly. (Watch it here.)

The teacher: Seattle’s Felix Hernandez, who drilled Cespedes the following day. First base was open, and the Mariners led 7-0 at the time.

Deserving or not, this was a lesson that Cespedes—a recent immigrant from Cuba—did not require. The guy had played in all of three major league games when he went deep, and seemed to quickly recognize his error.

“I followed the ball, but I don’t like that to do that again,” he said in the San Francisco Chronicle, following Friday’s game. “I come from Cuba, where it’s a little less quality games, so we do that. But here I don’t want to do that.”

That didn’t seem to matter to Hernandez. Although the right-hander denied it, Cespedes said he was “100 percent for sure” that the drilling was intentional, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

In the end, it doesn’t much matter. The lesson was sent, intentional or not, and the American League’s early home run leader came away just a bit wiser.

– Jason