There are lots of ways to look at the weekend’s incidents in Chicago, which resulted in six hit batters, four ejections, an in-dugout apology, some strategic rethinking about ages-old Code courtesy that’s long been questioned but never usurped, and a one-sided war of words waged by Cubs manager Joe Maddon.
Start with Maddon, whose reasonable explanations for everything that happened did little to mask that he spent the weekend playing both sides of the debate, as aggrieved victim and as innocent perpetrator, depending on whether his team was being drilled or doing the drilling. Chicago’s Dan Haren plunking Matt Holliday in the helmet? An accident, and don’t dare insinuate otherwise. Cards reliever Matt Belisle drilling Anthony Rizzo? As clearly telegraphed a hit as a hit ordered by Tony Soprano, whose name Maddon dropped in his postgame press conference. Never mind that Rizzo leads baseball in being hit by pitches, or that Belisle was still knocking off rust in only his second appearance since June after returning from elbow issues. (Watch Haren and Belisle’s pitches here.)
Maddon, however, didn’t want to hear it. (“Of course not,” he said, when asked about Belisle’s pitch possibly being unintentional. “That is ridiculous.”)
There are facts to back up the manager’s viewpoint, of course. Haren obviously did not mean to drill Holliday, but these are the Cardinals, whose institutional need to settle scores is so ingrained as to have been described in detail in the book Three Nights in August. (The focus of that book, Tony La Russa, has since moved on, but Mike Matheny has maintained the brand in a reasonable fashion.)
And that pitch Belisle threw sure looked intentional, aimed directly at its mark from the moment it left his hand. Haren, in fact, spent two seasons under La Russa in St. Louis, and knew enough to apologize to Rizzo after hitting Holliday for the HBP he was all but certain was coming. “They always police things like that …” Haren said in an MLB.com report, saying that the Cardinals view retaliation as an intimidation tactic. “They might take it to the extreme a little bit with that stuff. I think everyone understands it. I guess at least they didn’t throw at his head.”)
The real intrigue became with the warning Maddon issued at the close of his diatribe: “We don’t start stuff, but we will finish stuff.”
That became clear on Saturday, when Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong was hit twice (angrily spiking his bat after the second one, from reliever Fernando Rodney; watch it here). After warnings were issued, Cubs closer Hector Rondon furthered the tension by drilling pinch-hitter Greg Garcia to open the ninth, earning ejections for himself and Maddon.
“Obviously, we’re not trying to [hit anyone],” said Maddon, after the game.
Well, no. Not so obviously.
The denial of any intent for any action that can be justifiably read as antagonistic is part of the Code. But even were Maddon telling the truth, he had to realize that the chutzpah involved is overwhelming. Actually, he did.
“I know nobody wants to believe me,” he said. “You’re not going to believe me, all the Cardinal nation. God bless you, you’re not going to want to believe me, and I get it. There’s no way for me to sit here and even attempt to ameliorate your concerns. None of that was intentional, it just happens, it’s part of the game. Go ahead, lay it on me, man, I’m OK with it.”
Rondon drilled Garcia with a 96-mph fastball while his team held a four-run lead. Rodney is already known to go after people. It’s easy to explain away any one of Chicago’s three drillings that occurred after Maddon’s promise to “finish stuff,” but such blanket whitewashing is a stretch.
Perhaps it’s an indication that the Cubs are growing up as a franchise, that the mighty Cardinals finally see them as a threat and are responding in kind by breaking out big-boy tactics. It wouldn’t be a first. Chicago’s newfound success can be seen in Maddon’s own strategies; with his team in the heart of the wild-card chase the manager made clear his intention of placing the unwritten rules in a secondary position to winning games. In the eighth inning on Friday, he shut down his running game despite the Cardinals opting not to hold runners on first, on account of Chicago’s five-run lead. Maddon ended up having to warm up closer Hector Rondon in the ninth, on a day he would have liked to rest him entirely, and made it clear that he regretted the decision.
“The next time they [don’t hold our runners on base], we’re going to run,” he said. “I want everybody to know that. I never read that particular book that the Cardinals wrote way back in the day. I was a big Branch Rickey fan, but I never [read] this book that the Cardinals had written regarding how to play baseball. If you play behind us, and we’re up by five points in the ninth, we’re running. And you have every right to do the same thing.”
Sunday’s series closer featured no big leads for either team to exploit. It also featured no hit batters. For those of you scoring at home, it was the final time during the regular season that these teams will face each other. So be sure to mark your 2016 NL Central calendars for some quality Code-based action.