Don't Incite the Opposition

One Thing About Playing Baseball In 2020: People Can Hear You

When it comes to respect on the ballfield, 2020 is a particularly weird time.

We’ve long discussed the myriad ways that players can express displeasure with the opposition through their actions on the field, but have never encountered it being done via muttering from one’s own dugout.

With a deficit of crowd noise, that’s now a thing. Like on Tuesday, when St. Louis manager Mike Shildt nearly inspired a brawl over something he heard the Brewers say.

In started in the bottom of the fifth inning on Tuesday in Milwaukee, when plate ump John Bacon called a strike on a 2-1 pitch to Ryan Braun. The hitter disagreed, saying, “No, no, no, no—that is not a strike, man,” loudly enough to be picked up on the TV broadcast. (Again, not so difficult sans crowd noise.)

Bacon is in his second year as a major league umpire, and Braun appears to have thought that he was being intimidated by St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina. “Just because he gets mad at you,” he continued, “you can’t call that a strike, man.”

Later in the at-bat, Braun’s swing connected with Molina’s outstretched left wrist, resulting in only the third catcher’s interference call of Molina’s 17-year career—the first since 2006. Because the bases were loaded, the ruling brought home a run, extending the Brewers’ lead to 13-2. Even worse, Molina was injured, though he stayed in the game and X-rays later revealed no structural damage. As Shildt was checking on him, he heard something from Milwaukee’s bench that set him off, and he stomped all the way to the top step of the Brewers dugout to confront whoever said it. (What was said has not been disclosed by anybody on either side of the argument.)

“I don’t know where the insult came from,” said Shildt afterward, in an MLB.com report. “I feel like it was more directed to me, quite honestly. Did I do anything to warrant it? Perhaps. I was staring in the dugout. I will accept that. My hearing doesn’t suffer at all with a mask on.”

Shildt made clear that he was leveling no accusations against Braun, and that, above all, he had been frustrated by the interference call against a guy who simply does not draw interference calls. That didn’t make it okay with him, however.

“I’m not going to take it,” the manager said in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch report. “I’m not going to take any chirping out of the dugout. We’re not going to start things, but we’re not going to take it. Heard something I didn’t appreciate. I will always have our players’ backs. I will especially have a Hall of Famer and a guy who has the most physical, mental toughness that I’ve ever managed and may ever manage. I will always have his back.”

Moments after Shildt arrived at the Milwaukee dugout, players were littering the field, with Shildt and Molina being particularly expressive in their displeasure.

Nobody ended up fighting, but both managers—Shildt and Craig Counsell—were tossed. By the end of the frame the Brewers led, 17-2.

Shildt was ultimately suspended for second game of yesterday’s doubleheader. As it happened, Cardinals starter Johan Oviedo hit three Milwaukee batters in that game, including Braun. Nothing seemed to come of it, with opinions in the Brewers clubhouse chalking it up to wildness. Brawn even addressed the theory that he’d somehow intentionally hit Molina with his swing.

“I couldn’t do that, literally, even if I tried, and I don’t know any hitter that would or could do that intentionally,” he said. “Certainly, I would never want to see Yadi get hurt. He’s always been one of my favorite players to compete against.”

This all serves to illustrate that the new normal involves people being able to hear things they’d have had no chance of hearing in previous seasons. It might merit a whole new purpose for signs.

Yesterday was the end of a five games-in-three days run for these teams. They close the season with five more games against each other in St. Louis, starting on Sept. 24.

Update: 9/18: For those convinced that Braun somehow intentionally, impossibly hit Yadi on purpose, now there’s this.

Gamesmanship

Soto Shuffles His Way Into Game 1 Controversy

In baseball, the lights shine brightest during October. Those who embrace that notion are already halfway to stardom.

In that vein, anybody in St. Louis who hadn’t heard of Juan Soto before the NLCS kicked off last night sure as shootin’ knows who he is now.

Soto went a quiet 1-for-5 with two strikeouts against the Cardinals in Washington’s 2-0 Game 1 victory, so it wasn’t his play that turned heads at Busch Stadium. It was what he did between plays that drew ire.  

In Washington, they call it the “Soto shuffle”—a between-pitches routine in which the hitter squats, scrapes his feet through the box and shimmies his shoulders in a way that falls someplace between a samba and performance art. He will occasionally lick his lips and adjust his cup, the latter tending to particularly rankle given that he undertakes the entire affair while staring down the pitcher—some of whom tend to take exception.

Last night, that was St. Louis’ Miles Mikolas.

There are pitchers for whom such a display—and let’s be fair here: that was the Soto Shuffle on steroids—might inspire a retaliatory fastball. Whether Mikolas is among their ranks has yet to be seen, as, nursing a one-run deficit, the right-hander had no wiggle room with which to yield a free baserunner to the opposition. Instead, after wriggling out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth inning, he grabbed his crotch right back at Soto.

Soto has said that his batter’s box choreography helps him synch his timing. Indeed, he did it against Milwaukee’s Josh Hader in the wild-card game, just before sealing Washington’s 4-3 win with a three-run single in the ninth. Then again, last week he also said that “I like to get in the minds of the pitchers, because sometimes they get scared.” Gamesmanship at its finest.

After the game, Mikolas laughed off Soto’s act, saying in a Washington Post report that “I was just having fun,” while adding that Soto is a great hitter, “and great hitters have routines.”

“That’s part of his routine,” he said, “his shtick.”

In the Nationals clubhouse, Soto took a similar tack, saying, “He got me out so he can do whatever he wants. … I’m just going to laugh about it.”

The thing is, the Cardinals—team and fans alike—hew toward traditionalism. Showboating has no place in their ballpark (with a few notable exceptions). Just last week, closer Carlos Martinez got into it with Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr. over the hitter’s celebratory practices. Hell, Cards catcher Yadi Molina has already disparaged Soto this season for taking too much time between pitches. Their fans offered requisite verbal confirmation of this displeasure, raining boos down upon Soto.

Even Soto’s own manager, Dave Martinez—something of a traditionalist himself—stumbled when asked about the player’s routine, saying in the Post: “I thought, you know . . . it’s a little, you know . . .”

At that point, Martinez quickly shifted into manager mode, where protecting his players becomes a priority and his feelings about the Soto shuffle take a distant backseat to making sure its progenitor is in a proper place to give his best possible performance. If that means harboring the occasional unseemly display, so be it.

“After talking to him and watching him, it’s a routine that he uses to get to the next pitch,” Martinez continued. “I mean, when you talk to him he really feels like that’s his batter’s box, he owns that batter’s box. And when he does that, it’s basically just saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to get back in here and I’m going to get ready to hit the next pitch.’ ”

As noted in the Post, last season Soto did something similar to Aníbal Sánchez, then pitching for the Braves. Sánchez, who can freely talk about it now that he’s Soto’s teammate in Washington, said that he’d never seen anything like it in his 13 years as a big leaguer. “I’m like, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” Sánchez said. “I thought this guy was going to fight with me. It was kind of funny to me at that point.”

Sánchez, however, handled it perfectly, being more amused by it than anything else. Soto ended up going 0-for-6 against him across three games.

He also went 0-for-3 with a strikeout against Mikolas. Perhaps the rest of the Cardinals staff has something to learn from their interaction.

Retaliation, Showboating

Up 13-1, Cardinals Had Leeway To Respond To Atlanta However The Hell They Pleased

Tensions are heightened come playoff time, which may explain why Ronald Acuña Jr.’s excitable response to his ninth-inning, two-run homer off of Carlos Martinez in Game 1 of the NLDS proved so annoying to the St. Louis pitcher. Acuña had absolutely smashed the ball—455 feet, as measured by Statcast—to close the Cardinals’ lead to 7-5, and gesticulated wildly toward his teammates in the Braves dugout as he rounded the bases.

This followed a notable moment in the third, when Acuña failed to run hard out of the box on what he assumed would be a home run, but which ended up as a single when the ball bounced off the wall. Acuña ended up stranded on base when he might otherwise have represented what would be a vital run for his team.

Acuña’s home run celebration was enough to shake Martinez to the point that he had to be calmed down by Yadi Molina. The right-hander then gave up an even longer home run two batters later, to Freddie Freeman, although he did finally close out what would be a 7-6 victory. Martinez was so upset after the game that he closed out the game by screaming at the Braves dugout, then said afterward: “I wanted [Acuña] to respect the game and respect me as a veteran player.”

And so we find ourselves back in the noman’sland of baseball celebrations, which have been officially sanctioned by the commissioner’s office even while a number of pitchers continue to bristle at them. Would Acuña’s antics have drawn notice had his Game 1 homer given his team the lead, rather than coming as it did with the Braves up, 3-1? Would Martinez have cared less had Acuña not already pulled something similar, with disastrous results, earlier in the game? Who knows?

Typically, the postseason is not a place to settle old scores. Even a remote possibility that an ill-timed retribution HBP can come back to bite you is enough to keep teams in line until stakes are lower. Sure enough, the series’ second, third and fourth games never saw either club with a lead of more than three runs.

Game 5, however, was different. St. Louis scored 10 in the first, one in the second and two more in the third, and led 13-1 when Acuña stepped in against Jack Flaherty with two outs in the fifth inning. Flaherty drilled him in the upper arm. Acuña slowly made his way to first base, chirping toward the mound all the while.

The evidence against the pitch being intentional: There was a runner on; it came on the fifth pitch of the at-bat, with three of those pitches being strikes (including a foul ball); it was a fastball, but not Flaherty’s fastest, the two-seamer coming in at just 90 mph.

The evidence for it being intentional: Apart from the history between the teams, it was mostly the Flaherty’s comments after the game. Via Jeff Jones: “It hit him. He took exception to it. That’s the guy he wants to be. That’s how it is. He’s been having all his antics all series. The guy hits a ball off the wall, he gets a single out of it. So he wants to take exception to it, he can do whatever he wants. He can talk all he wants. But we tried to go in, we talk, our scouting report is go in, we go in. So it got away, it hit him. He wants to take exception to it, he can do whatever he wants.”

Sure sounds to me like a guy with a grudge.

Flaherty denied intent as part of his diatribe against Acuña, but Cards skipper Mike Shildt seemed to feel otherwise in his postgame speech to the team after they finally put Atlanta away.

The primary takeway after a game like that is that with a 12-run lead, pitchers with malice aforethought have leeway to do whatever they think is right, even during a playoff game. The Braves have all winter to consider this, and how they might respond come next spring.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, now on to the NLCS, have more pressing matters on their minds.

Don't Cross the Pitcher's Mound

Mikolas Calls Out Galvis For Mound Trespass, Reignites Debate Over Whether Such A Thing Even Exists

On April 22, 2010, Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees ran across the mound at the Oakland Coliseum on his way back to the dugout.

Dallas Braden, pitching for the A’s at the time, took extremely verbal exception.

It became a national story, propelling a book about baseball’s unwritten rules that had been released only a few weeks earlier waaaaay up the Amazon charts. (Shortly thereafter, The Baseball Codes crested at No. 34 overall, which in my new-author mind was nice, but hey, it’s a good book, so why not? Having since published two more titles, my stance is now more along the lines of Holy hell, did that actually happen?) 

It took a while after Rodriguez, but somebody again crossed a mound in noteworthy fashion.

On Sunday, in the fourth inning of the first game of a doubleheader, St. Louis starter Miles Mikolas got Cincinnati’s Freddy Galvis to fly out to center field. It was nondescript: a routine flyball, the second out of what would be a three-up, three-down frame … until Galvis returned to his dugout. Rather than trotting around the mound, he jogged straight over it. It was, after all, in the middle of his straightest path of return.

Mikolas was having none of it.

“I asked him politely to use the grass,” the pitcher recalled after the game in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch report. (What Mikolas actually said, at least according to the lip-reading skills of @Jomboy, was “You walk around that shit. You run around the fucking mound.”)

At this point in the exchange it becomes obvious that Galvis was guilty only of ignorance. At first, he was confused about why he was being shouted at. Then he grew indignant. When Cards catcher Yadi Molina preemptively cut off Galvis’ route to the pitcher, benches and bullpens quickly emptied.

Nothing came of it, of course, the relief pitchers from both teams only making it about halfway to the infield before things calmed down. Still, there is plenty to unpack. Mainly: Why should a pitcher even care?

Mikolas offered one avenue of response, saying: “We do a tremendous job of taking care of that mound—your landing spot, the rubber, kind of keep it nice for the guys coming out of the bullpen. No one wants to come out of the bullpen with the mound all chewed.”

That’s the practical answer. The cosmic, karmic answer has to do with one’s space, physical or otherwise. As I wrote in the A-Rod/Braden aftermath:

The pitcher’s mound is unlike any other space on a baseball diamond. Pitchers use it to literally survey the field from their vantage on high. Braden’s taken some flack for calling the mound the center of the universe, but that’s exactly what he was taught. It’s the point of origin for every play on a baseball diamond, a notion that can, for those who care to run this deep, lend a sacredness to it.

Ultimately, Braden laid down the gauntlet back in 2010, sending a message to Rodriguez through the press: “If he wants to run across the pitcher’s mound, tell him to do laps in the bullpen.”

Mikolas has Braden as precedent, and Braden had plenty of precedent of his own. A sampling:

  • Bert Blyleven: “I used to really get pissed if a guy flew out, say, and he came back and stepped on my mound. I used to say something to some of the hitters. Just don’t run on my mound. That was my mound that day.”
  • Jamie Quirk: “Stay clear of the mound. It’s his area; don’t try to run across it or toward him. Just go back to your dugout and stay clear. That’s just courtesy of doing things the right way.”
  • Dave Roberts: “That’s his office, his domain. To run across it is disrespectful.”
  • Jim Price: “I’ve seen that happen, and then there was retaliation.”
  • Bob Gibson: “(Steve) Carlton and I shared one pet peeve relating to the office [the term Carlton used to refer to the mound]. We hated when hitters crossed behind it on their way back to the dugout. We took down names.” (From Stranger to the Game.)

It’s tough to fault Galvis for not knowing what he’s never been taught. Upon hearing about it from the opposition, however, it would have been a better look for him and the Reds both had he quietly gone about inquiring in his own dugout whether Mikolas might actually have a point. Manager David Bell—the son and grandson of former big leaguers—would be a great place to start.

The reality, of course, is that many big leaguers have likely done precisely the same thing, unnoticed because the pitchers whose mounds they crossed either didn’t notice themselves or didn’t bother to make an issue out of it.

Miles Mikoulas did. And it was spectacular.



Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead

When Is Stealing With A Big Lead In The Fourth Inning Acceptable? Pretty Much Always

There was some discussion this morning about Pirates broadcasters Greg Brown and Bob Walk lambasting the Cardinals’ decision to steal two bases yesterday—both by Yairo Munoz, in the span of two pitches—while holding an 11-4 lead. Suffice it to say that the Bucs’ broadcasters were not impressed.

Brown and Walk are unequivocally old-school, going so far as to initially misidentify the ensuing boos as being directed at the Cardinals’ perceived breach of etiquette rather than at the home team’s sloppy play. Walk even alluded to retaliation, saying, “I know exactly what would happen now, in a different era.”

Holy hell, guys—it was the fourth inning. Under even the kindest reading of the code—even the code from Walk’s era (he pitched from 1980 to 1993)— that’s way too early to expect behavior modification. In The Baseball Codes, we broke the idea down via a series of quotes intended to convey the diversity of opinion on the subject about when a team should take its foot off the gas in a blowout game:

* “It used to be that [running with] anything more than a four-run lead was wrong, and you’ve got to be careful with that.”—Tony La Russa

* “When I was playing, if you had a four-run lead it was a courtesy not to run. But you can do that now.”—Ozzie Guillen

* “Once I had you by five runs and you couldn’t tie me with a grand slam, that was it.”—Sparky Anderson

* “I was always taught you shut it down at five runs after six.”—Dusty Baker

* “Five runs in the sixth, I’m not stopping there. We get into the sev­enth inning, then I’ll start chilling a little bit.”—Ron Washington

* “We play [to shut it down] if you’re up seven runs in the seventh inning.”—Jim Slaton

“From the seventh inning on, if one swing of the bat can tie you up, it’s game on,” said ex–first baseman Mark Grace in 2006. “If it’s 4–0, you have Jason Schmidt on the mound, and he’s only given up one hit, you still go for it if Ray Durham gets on base in the eighth inning. Now, if it’s 6–0, you’re in territory where you might get a player hit in the brain in response.”

The first three bullet points fail to mention timing, but the other four take care of that. In the homer-happy, run-barrage landscape of modern baseball, in which comebacks are more likely than ever, is it weird to think that a seven-run lead in the fourth inning is safe? Of course not. Hell, even the Pirates thought so, having first baseman Josh Bell hold Munoz on first base prior to his initial steal (despite the insistence of pitcher Luis Escobar to steadfastly ignore him).

And why wouldn’t they? It was the fourth inning for crying out loud.

Slide properly

Slide On Down: Baseball’s Newfound Sensitivity Problem When It Comes To The Basepaths

Sogard slides IIWho’d have guessed that the primary unwritten-rules-related topic of Major League Baseball 2018 wouldn’t be bat flips or even retaliatory pitches, but guys sliding into bases? In the modern world of fielder safety, we’ve reached the point that players are managing to get offended even on properly executed slides.

First case in point: Last Friday in Milwaukee, the slide of Brewers infielder Eric Sogard was cut off prematurely when Cardinals shortstop Yairo Munoz, shifting over to field the throw, impeded his progress. It was a clean play all around—these things sometimes happen—yet feelings nonetheless managed to get scuffed. Sogard got up talking (“The first words that came out of my mouth,” he told reporters after the game, “were ‘are you all right?’ “), Munoz got up angry, and within moments the benches had emptied.

Harrison slidesThen on Tuesday, Pittsburgh’s Josh Harrison slid forcefully into second base, upending Mets second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera. The slide was legit, and Cabrera didn’t seem to take offense—but New York pitcher Jeurys Familia did, starting a shouting match with Harrison that, like Sogard’s play in Milwaukee, drew both teams onto the field.

These follow a questionable slide already executed this season by Roughned Odor in Anaheim, tit-for-tat slides in Pittsburgh, a dustup over a slide in Wrigley Field, and a slide that left the Yankees and Red Sox brawling on the Fenway Park infield. Collectively, it’s served to illustrate the unintended consequence of Major League Baseball’s recent efforts to insure the safety of catchers and infielders via ever more restrictive regulations against impact. The tighter the rules, after all, the more likely it is that somebody will violate them … and the more likely that defenders will imagine violations where none exist.

Once, of course, it was legal to crash into any base in whatever way a runner saw fit, short of standing up to take a guy out. Hal McRae was the king of high barrel rolls into second base, knocking fielders backward with such viciousness that the play was eventually outlawed with an injunction that is now informally known as the Hal McRae rule. Even recently, however, low barrel rolls were seen as acceptable, none more exemplary than Alex Rodriguez’s slide into second that took out Jeff Kent’s knee in 1998. Kent was decidedly displeased, but on the whole, critics viewed the play as clean.

An example of barrel-rolling from the 1972 World Series, via SB Nation. Poor Dick Green.

After Don Baylor crashed into Cleveland second baseman Remy Hermoso in 1974 (a late feed from shortstop Frank Duffy had left Hermoso directly in Baylor’s path while awaiting the throw)—a blow that knocked the infielder out of action for nearly four months—Orioles manager Earl weaver had to convince Baylor that the play was clean, and that such collisions were simply part of the game. It was the only time in Baylor’s 19-year career, he said later, that he ever felt bad about taking out an infielder in such a manner.

Former Rangers manager (and career infielder) Ron Washington once explained to me that, as a coach, an appropriate response to such a play was not anger toward the opposition but better protection for one’s own infielders. “I told my guys to protect your ass at all times,” he said. “Don’t go across that bag on a double-play, lollygagging. You go across that bag with two things in mind: I’m gonna turn this sucker, and if anybody gets in my way I’m gonna blow him apart [low-bridging a throw, forcing the runner to hit the dirt to avoid it]. … I don’t care how simple the play is, you get yourself in a position of protection, because you never know.”

No longer. Dave Nelson talked about this very topic in an interview for The Baseball Codes in 2006, when he was a coach for Milwaukee.

“I’ll give you a good example,” he said. “Carlos Lee went into Todd Walker last year, hard, clean. Put Walker out of the game, hurt his knee. So one of my players, Russell Branyan says, ‘That’s a dirty play.’ And I said, ‘What? That’s not a dirty play. He went in there clean and hard.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but according to today’s standards, that’s dirty, because nobody does it.’ I said, ‘That’s the problem—nobody does it.’ He didn’t go out there to hurt him, he went out there to take him out of the double play. This is guys’ mentality today. This is how they think.”

That was before baseball implemented its current spate of rules.

I examined this evolution a couple years back, well before the current spate of basepath-related issues. What’s changed since that time is further restrictions on what players can legally do. Now, it seems, anything outside the proscribed guidelines—and sometimes well within them—is spurring players to anger. It goes a long way toward illustrating the effect of inherent competitiveness on a constrained landscape. The window for what is considered to be appropriate behavior in this regard is more diminutive than ever (even while the window for appropriate behavior as pertains to celebrations has been thrown wide open). Ballplayers have gained a new layer of entitlement, and damned if they’re not going to leverage it for all it’s worth.

After the Pirates-Mets game in which Josh Harrison was upbraided by Jeurys Familia for a perfectly acceptable slide, the Pittsburgh infielder took a reasoned approach to the situation.

“Apparently he said, ‘Play the game the right way,’ ” Harrison told reporters after his dustup with Familia. “If you go back and look at the footage, I think I played the game the right way. Didn’t touch the guy, broke up a double play without hurting the guy or touching the guy. At the end of the day, I think that’s playing the game the right way.”

It is. Here’s hoping that the rest of baseball can come to recognize as much before too much longer.

Don't Call out Opponents in the Press, Retaliation

Pham, Bam, Thank You Ma’am: Cards Slugger Upset Over Cub Comments, HBP (Maybe Not in That Order)

Phammed

Losing to the Cubs offers indignities aplenty for St. Louis.

Yielding the pennant-clinching victory to Chicago, as the Cardinals did on Wednesday, is downright mortifying. Doing so at home only makes the suffering worse. Having what seemed like half the stadium cheering for the visitors was downright brutal.

Hearing Ben Zobrist talk beforehand about how the Cubs “intend to clinch there” and how “it’s going to be very satisfying” was enough to make at least one player angry.

Cardinals outfielder Tommy Pham was especially pointed in his response to Zobrist’s comments. “He better not ask me how I’m doing on the field,” Pham told reporters. “I don’t want to be his friend. He said he’s going to come here and pop bottles or all that stuff. Don’t say hi to me on the field then.”

It would have been easier to brush aside as surface drama had Pham not been drilled in the ribs on Tuesday, then talked after the game about how “it was definitely on purpose.” The HBP had less to do with his comments, he said, than with Kris Bryant being drilled earlier in the game by a Carlos Martinez fastball that approached 100 mph. (The only thing keeping him from charging the mound, Pham said in a CBS report, was that “I don’t make enough money right now to face a suspension.”

 

He might be right about the motivation. Pham himself had hit a monster homer an inning earlier to give St. Louis a 5-1 lead, and when Bryant came up, two were out with a runner at third. Avoiding the reigning NL MVP with a base open is rarely a bad option.

Then again, Bryant was hit with a 2-2 pitch, which brought Anthony Rizzo to the plate. Moreover, Martinez was all over the place. The pitch before the one that drilled Bryant went wild, allowing Mike Freeman to advance. Then Martinez walked Rizzo to load the bases. Then he walked Wilson Contreras to bring home a run.

The teams played yesterday with little drama beyond Chicago’s champagne celebration (as Zobrist had predicted). With St. Louis battling for the NL’s final wild-card spot, nothing funky should go down when the teams meet tonight for the final time this season, except maybe in the case of a blowout.

Still, drama sure is fun.

[H/T: Christopher C.]

Cheating, Pine Tar

Stick Around, Why Don’t You?: Yadi’s Magic Chest Protector Draws Attention in Unwanted Ways

Molina sticky ball

Pee Wee Reese would load up spitballs for Don Drysdale, away from the watchful eye of umpires.

Yankees catcher Elston Howard was said to have sharpened the buckles on his shin guards, which he used to gouge baseballs as he drew back his arm for return throws to the pitcher.

Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills kept an emery board in his glove with which to scuff balls before returning them to the mound. Reds shortstop Davey Concepcion was rumored to have a bent eyelet on his glove’s heel for much the same purpose.

There were first basemen who put tacks in their gloves and third basemen who put Vaseline on their palms to offer assistance in the same, surreptitious vein.

So should we be surprised, really, if Yadier Molina is doing something similar for his pitchers?

That’s the simplest explanation for what happened yesterday, when a pitch from Brett Cecil bounced in front of the plate and ended up adhered to Molina’s chest protector as the increasingly frantic catcher looked around for the lost baseball. Application of pine tar helps pitchers increase the movement of breaking pitches (which Cecil’s offering was), but it also tends to make things … sticky.

(Watch the whole thing here.)

Yadi knows exactly what happened. So does Cecil. So, likely, does Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, himself a former catcher. When asked about it after the game, however, they offered little more than a collective Huh?

Catchers can legally apply pine tar to their shin guards, the better to increase their ability to grip the ball. It’s legal because catchers have no interest in making their own throws do funky things, and on cold or wet nights grip can be vital. Salvador Perez was outed for this very thing during the 2015 World Series, and the news barely made a ripple. Had Molina offered an excuse somewhere along those lines it would have made some sense. Instead, he said this:

“Do I put anything on my chest protector? No. That’s a dumb question.”

Which leads to the clear impression that he’s covering something up on behalf of his pitcher. Cecil didn’t comment, because Cecil took off after the game without speaking to reporters.

Upon being removed from Molina’s chest the ball left a white smudge—a clear indicator for sleuths around the ballpark. But because Cubs manager Joe Maddon never requested that the ball, Molina or Cecil be checked by the umpires, the game continued apace and everybody went on their merry ways.

If Cecil was cheating, he has a rich history of pitchers to emulate. Over just the last two seasons, Mike Fiers was accused of using pine tar during a no-hitter, Brian Matusz was suspended for hiding a foreign substance on his arm and Brewers reliever Will Smith was busted for similar reasons. There was also, of course, the infamous Michael Pineda affair, which came in two parts.

What’s left now, mostly (unless somebody in the know decides to talk) is for Cecil to knock off any extracurricular activities until the heat dies down. Same for Molina. Because, really, nobody around baseball really cares about pitchers using pine tar (there are likely some on every team who do) until the moment that public attention forces them to decry cheaters cheaters and their cheating ways.

Retaliation

The Cardinal Way is Now Officially a Thing

Cashner

Maybe Andrew Cashner hates the Cardinals. Maybe he just struggles with command. But on July 21, pitching for San Diego, he drilled Matt Holliday in the nose, opening a nasty cut but doing no thorough damage. Yesterday, Cashner’s team had changed but his strategy had not.

In his first start after being traded to Miami, he got right back at it, running an inside fastball that hit Aledmys Diaz on the hand, an injury that eventually forced Diaz from the game.

It made no difference that Cashner was wearing a different uniform when he plunked Holliday. Patterns of abuse—even unintentional abuse—do not go unnoticed in organizations in which Tony La Russa has let his presence. A half-inning after the right-hander drilled Diaz, Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez plunked Giancarlo Stanton in the back. Message sent.

With Cashner’s pitch to Holliday on July 21 having come in above the shoulders, dangerously close to doing real damage, it’s little surprise that the Cardinals—whether Martinez was acting on his own or nudged from above—chose to react. The sight of blood will do that, and it’s likely that some in the St. Louis clubhouse had considered retaliation even before Diaz was hit. (The pitch to Holliday a week-and-a-half earlier had been Cashner’s last of the game, in the final game of the series, and a one-run score never allowed for future response on the Cardinals’ part.)

Talking about it later in an MLB.com report, Cashner theorized that it’s “kind of the ‘Cardinal way’ over there.” (St. Louis skipper Mike Matheny said he didn’t “have a thought or anything else” to offer about the exchange.)

The pertinent issue here involves which scores have been settled, because the Cardinals clearly have long memories when it comes to this type of thing.

It’s safe to assume that their response to Cashner wiped his slate clean. Is the same true when it comes to his ex-team, the Padres? We’ve already heard from La Russa that retaliation can be triggered merely by an opponent’s philosophy, if said philosophy involves pitching inside. (For what it’s worth, San Diego doesn’t appear to pitch inside more or less than anybody else, their collective HBPs hovering right around league average.) They don’t face the Cardinals again until next season.

If nothing else, we have one clear takeaway. When a club like St. Louis takes issue with a pitcher, a change of uniform or the removal of facial hair hardly provides sufficient disguise. If Cashner does something similar again the next time he faces the Cards, it won’t matter who he’s pitching for. Retaliation is all but assured.

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Replay Revenge Rocks Runaway Rally Against Redbirds

 

Maddon

Yesterday, Hardball Talk pointed out something brewing in a next-level unwritten rules controversy: management of the challenge system.

On Tuesday, in the ninth inning of a game in which the Cubs were leading the Cardinals, 8-1, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny ordered his infield to play in—a decidedly unusual move so late in a blowout. Typically, such tactics—things like having first basemen hold runners close—are eschewed when the final result is no longer in question. Pitchers even stop nibbling around the corners, the better to force action and end things quickly.

So why would he do it? ESPN’s Jesse Rogers may have an answer.

During the play in question, Addision Russell—the third batter of the ninth inning—was called out at first after grounding to St. Louis second baseman Kolten Wong. It would have been the inning’s second out.

Instead, Maddon challenged, and Russell was ruled safe. The Cubs went on to score four times, ultimately winning, 12-3. By all appearances, Matheny saw the move as disrespectful. The Code during runaway games is largely aimed at avoiding unnecessary embarrassment for an opponent that’s already been embarrassed enough, the equivalent of a college football team pulling its starters while holding a 35-point lead in the fourth quarter.

Maddon explained his replay process thusly, via MLB.com:

“That validates running hard to first base. Two things could happen there: Maybe [Russell] could hit .300 because of that play, but more than anything, if our minor league players are watching, they see the validation of running hard to first base all the time.”

Both things are true. But a baserunner saying that the bag he swiped late in a May blowout might be the one that allowed him to reach 50 is spurious logic. This isn’t much different.

The Code during a blowout also stipulates the cessation of aggressive tactics, which means station-to-station running: advance only one base on a single, two on a double, etc. Wanting to reward his player for a hit justly earned wasn’t aggressive on Maddon’s part, but the Cubs actions with the very next batter—Javier Baez scored Chicago’s ninth run from second base on a single by Tim Federowicz—were.

Remember, Maddon’s Cubs and the Cards already have some history.

Ultimately, this seems like an issue that should be more or less immune to the unwritten rules. If a guy earns a hit, a guy earns a hit, and his manager looking out for him in that regard is the least he can do. Had Maddon chosen to challenge a play on the basepaths, it’d be a different story. For the time being, however, watching the Cubs and Cards snipe at each other is its own special reward.