Retaliation

With Springtime Tit-For-Tat, Pirates and Rays Already In Midseason Form

Spring Training

Spring training has long been a place to settle old scores. Want to drill a guy without repercussions to your regular-season ERA? Save it for March. Just this morning I saw a tweet from @RememberWhenMLB …

… about one of the very first topics I covered upon launching this blog back in 2010. Zito did what he had to do, Fielder took it in stride, and everybody moved along their merry ways.

Baseball was different then; retaliation for personal expression is far less expected now than it was even a decade ago. This is a good thing. But just because someone like Zito is less likely to throw at someone like Fielder in the modern version of spring training doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen.

Just ask the Pirates.

In a game between the Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay yesterday, two Rays pitchers—Ryne Stanek and Oliver Drake—hit Pirates batters in the early going. Unless there’s some yet-to-be-publicized bad blood (unlikely given that the last time these teams  played each other in the regular season, 2017, none of the four principals—the batters who got hit or the pitchers who hit them—were even on their respective rosters), those pitches were purely accidental. Because of course they were. It’s the only reasonable explanation.

For Pirates pitcher Clay Holmes, it didn’t matter. The right-hander responded by drilling Pirates infielder Willy Adames. (He later denied intent, which is itself believable given that the primary knock on Holmes is his control.) For Rays manager Kevin Cash, however, Holmes’ motivation was clear. “Are you happy?” he yelled across the field from his dugout after the pitch connected.

Holmes, a 26-year-old who made it into 11 games last year in his first season in the big leagues, understands that the best way to curry favor in one’s clubhouse is to stand up for one’s teammates in any way necessary. While the scope of the word “necessary” can shift from player to player, there’s no mistaking that with one simple fastball, the right-hander established that the Pirates have at least one guy among their ranks unwilling to tolerate abuse (whether real or perceived) to his teammates.

Never mind that it’s ludicrous to send a message about mistake pitches thrown during a period in the schedule when ballplayers are mainly trying to work out winter kinks. (Hell, Drake’s a non-roster invitee who started his appearance with six straight balls.)

Plate ump Bill Welke actually warned both benches, to ensure that the foolishness went no further. “It’s weird in spring training,” said a baffled Adames after the game, in a Tampa Bay Times report. “You’re not expecting that.”

Nossir, you’re not. We’re now faced with the dual possibilities of A) This going away quickly because who really cares, and B) It’s still only spring training, so if Cash or any of his charges wants to respond, they have massive latitude to do so. Let’s hope it’s the former.

[H/T Road Dog Russ]

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Retaliation

One Pitcher From Last Season’s Yanks-Rays HBP Flap Spared, And It’s Not Sabathia

CC yells

It was kind of a big deal last September when, in his final appearance of the regular season, CC Sabathia responded to a head-high fastball thrown at one of his teammates by drilling an opponent of his own. It was kind of a big deal because warnings had already been issued, and Sabathia knew that he’d be ejected for the action, two innings from triggering a $500,000 bonus clause in his contract. He considered it money well spent.

At the time, a number of critics (myself included) suggested that the Yankees should pay him anyway. In December, they did.

Now the other half of the equation—Rays reliever Andrew Kittredge, whose head-high fastball to Austin Romine, itself a response to various teammates being tagged by Yankees pitchers, initially triggered Sabathia—was similarly relieved of a burden. MLB suspended him for three games at the time, a penalty that it rescinded yesterday. This is especially pertinent since Kittredge has been outrighted off Tampa Bay’s 40-man roster, and a suspension—to be served whenever he returns to the big leagues—would obviate the necessity to call him up for short-term help.

Sabathia, meanwhile, is still saddled with a five-game suspension, which doesn’t mean much to a starter who can easily be slotted behind Luis Severino, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ. Sabathia will likely get his first start bumped back by a day or two, and that will be that. At the very least, it will serve as a tangible reminder of the lengths he’s willing to go to to stand up for his teammates.

Retaliation

What Price Respect?: CC Sabathia’s Half-Million-Dollar Pitch Speaks Volumes

CC drills 'em

In the world of pro sports, money frequently equates to respect. In major league baseball, a team coming up with big contract dollars for a player shows—in the eyes of an abundance of those players—that he is respected. Alternatively, if a team presents budget constraints during negotiations, it shows that they do not. Look no further than escalating salary clauses that guarantee a player will sit at a given rank among the highest-paid in his sport; they are less concerned with how much a player makes than that he rates highly among his peers. It’s an easy way to insure more money, of course, but it also insures respect.

Which is what makes CC Sabathia’s decision yesterday all the more remarkable. For a moment, anyway, money didn’t equal respect in baseball. Quite the opposite.

In the sixth inning, two frames from triggering a half-million-dollar contract bonus in his final start of the season, Sabathia opted to stand up for his teammates by drilling a member of the opposition. With warnings already in place from an earlier incident, the pitcher knew he’d be tossed for it. He didn’t care.

In question was a fastball thrown a half-inning earlier by Rays right-hander Andrew Kittredge, at Yankees catcher Austin Romine—as obvious as a retaliatory pitch can be. It was ostensibly in response to the compounding numbers of Tampa Bay players being drilled by New York pitchers. On Tuesday, Luis Severino hit Tommy Pham. On Wednesday, Masahiro Tanaka hit Kevin Kiermeir, fracturing his foot. Yesterday, one inning prior to Kittredge’s response, Sabathia hit Jake Bauers. None of those drillings appear to have been intentional—Sabathia’s pitch was an 87-mph two-seamer that broke in on the hitter’s hands—but at some point it’s tough to criticize a team for wanting to respond.

The primary problem with Kittredge’s pitch lay in its execution—it was a first-pitch fastball fired directly at the ear hole of the Romine’s helmet, which the hitter barely managed to avoid. Most ballplayers are willing to tolerate retaliatory tactics within certain parameters, none of which include pitches thrown above the shoulders; there is no more universally loathed tactic in all the sport. The offering was so blatant that plate ump Vic Carapazza immediately warned both benches.

This is what Sabathia had to consider as he stewed in the dugout while the Yankees batted.

It’s extremely rare that an athlete has such clear and diametrically opposed options available during the course of play. Sabathia could have ignored Kittredge’s pitch, or even just brushed a Rays hitter back in response, and still have been able to cash in. Instead, he followed what he considered to be the correct path. With the score 11-0, timing didn’t matter at all. This is why, with his first pitch of the following inning, Sabathia drilled Rays catcher Jesus Sucre in the backside. He was immediately tossed, as he knew he would be, his bonus money all but forfeited on the spot.

CC Sabathia is 38 years old and an 18-year veteran. He came back to the Yankees this season on a one-year contract offered as much to secure his leadership as his pitching. With first-year manager Aaron Boone at the helm, the left-hander was expected to be a stabilizing force in the clubhouse.

This, then, is what leaders do.

Some people decry the idea of drilling a batter intentionally under any circumstance. In many instances—in response to some sort of celebration, for example, or whatever else can be considered as showing up an opponent—this is a majority opinion even within big league clubhouses. But when a pitcher deliberately puts one of your own in peril—and without question, that’s what Kittredge did to Romine—players demand response. There’s an element of macho posturing to it, but there’s more to it than that. It is a tangible consequence of a team taking liberties with an opponent, a tactic that forces the offending squad to confront its own conduct and, ideally, to act differently in the future. Hell, it’s the same thing that inspired Kittredge in the first place, except that unlike Sabathia, his response was outside the boundaries of accepted behavior.

That Sabathia has earned more than $250 million over the course of his career in no way means that he sees $500,000 as anything less than a significant amount of money. It was a sacrifice on his part, made willingly and without complaint in the name of respect and clubhouse standing.

If the Yankees want to do the right thing, they’ll pay him anyway.

Celebrations, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Lotta Staring, Lotta Talking, And Just A Touch Of Benches-Clearing Confrontation As Twins-Rays Close Out Season’s First Half

Dozier dances

Before we move into the season’s second half, let’s clear out some pre-All-Star business. Like, for example, what happened in Minnesota over the weekend. It started during Saturday’s game, with the Rays trailing 6-4 heading into the top of the seventh inning. They emerged, two walks, three singles, a triple and a wild pitch later, leading, 9-6. Tampa added five more in the eighth to build the lead to 14-6. It’s what happened in the ninth, though, that drew my attention.

With Minnesota’s rookie utility infielder Willians Astudillo on the mound to save a taxed bullpen, Tampa Bay’s first three hitters went homer, double, single. No problems yet. The Twins led by nine, and were playing station-to-station ball—advancing one base on a single, two on a double, etc.—as teams do in blowouts. (For all the disagreement about when a lead can officially be considered safe, nine runs in the ninth meets every definition … never mind that Minnesota had already cried uncle with the insertion of Astudillo.)

Kevin Kiermaier then scored Smith with a ground ball to first base that was initially mishandled by Ehire Adrianza, who recovered in time to get the out at first but had no hope of making the play at the plate. This was acceptable under the rule of thumb that if no play is imminent—if a runner can go into a base standing up—he should do so. Ten-run lead.

What came next, however, was curious. Daniel Robertson singled on a soft bouncer to center field, and Adeiny Hechavarria never hesitated from second, motoring home with Tampa Bay’s 17th run, taking an extra base when such tactics had long since become excessive. (The Rays’ 18th and 19th runs came shortly thereafter on Jake Bauers’ two-run homer.)

Maybe the Rays were excited by their late-game explosion. Or maybe, as was pointed out via e-mail by longtime reader and avid Rays fan Road Dog Russ, “the Rays don’t feel any lead they have is safe. (Hangs head and sighs.)”

Minnesota players refrained from commenting publicly about it as far as I’ve seen, but if we’ve learned anything about this year’s Twins, it’s that at least a few of them (step on up, Brian Dozier) take the unwritten rules to heart (sometimes in not such productive ways). If I noticed the play from my office in California, the Twins almost certainly noticed it from across the field.

Which leads us to Sunday. While it’s possible that Saturday’s incident is unrelated to what came next—I’ve seen no accounts linking them—carryover is always possible.

With the score tied 4-4 in the seventh and the Twins in a shift against batter Eduardo Escobar, the aforementioned Dozier took an enormous lead off of third base, and, in no danger of being picked off (what with the third baseman being stationed in the shortstop’s spot), began dancing back and forth like a lunatic. It was enough to distract rookie Rays reliever Diego Castillo into a balk, sending a jubilant, fist-pumping Dozier home with the lead run. The play was, by every indication, a response to Twins left fielder Eddie Rosario, who had done something similar from third base on Saturday.

Castillo’s next pitch to Escobar came in at 101 miles per hour, low and inside, but not close enough to cause the hitter to so much as move his feet. When Escobar backed out of the box to collect himself, Twins third baseman Daniel Robertson yelled at him to step back in. That was pretty much that: Benches cleared, and hostilities were on. (As usual, no punches were thrown.)

 

“I wasn’t upset with the pitcher,” Escobar said after the game in an MLB.com report. “I never said anything to the pitcher or the dugout. I got upset and frustrated with Robertson, the third baseman. I didn’t know why he was yelling at me. The previous pitch before everything happened, it was kind of close to me. I wasn’t upset about that either. Robertson just started opening his arm and yelling stuff at me, which I couldn’t hear very well. That’s why I got frustrated.”

Escobar had been hit by a pitch an inning earlier. According to various Rays, after Castillo’s inside pitch, Twins reliever Ryan Pressly began shouting from the dugout that Tampa Bay had put a target on Escobar. Rays manager Kevin Cash began heatedly shouting across the field for somebody in Minnesota’s to shut the fuck up.

After the game, Robertson explained that he felt Escobar was trying to stare down the pitcher, and had done the same to reliever Ryan Yarbrough following an inside pitch earlier in the game. The fact that he also called Escobar “a good dude,” and pointed out that they both like to eat at Fogo de Chao doesn’t much mask the fact that getting upset over the way a player looks at somebody is ridiculous. Brazilian-style meat may build bridges, but this ain’t that.

(Robertson’s exact explanation: “When Castillo went down and low on [Escobar’s] ankles, he stared at him again. There was already a lot of chatter going on as far as the balk that happened right before that. Everyone was yelling at each other. He was looking back up at our pitcher again, and I just told him, ‘Hey, quit staring at our pitcher. Nobody’s trying to hit you; just get back in the box and hit.’ That’s about it, man. Then he kind of came back at me.”)

Escobar struck out on the next pitch, at which point Robertson was still talking. The hitter again took exception, this time as he walked past the Twins dugout, and again benches cleared. This time Escobar was ejected.

There’s a lot of fault to go around. Dozier did a mess of hollering all the way down the line as he was sent home on that balk, but he never directed it toward the pitcher or Tampa Bay’s dugout. If the Rays don’t like stuff like that, their best bet is to avoid balking in runs.

If Escobar was rattled by an inside pitch that was closer to being a strike than it was to hitting him, he’ll either need to fix that mentality or find a new line of work.

Kevin Cash decided that it was a good idea to repeatedly curse at his opponents. If he’s legitimately wondering why things got heated, there are a number of people he can see about that.

If David Robertson is really able to get bench-clearingly annoyed at the way an opponent looks at his teammate, he’d make an awesome nightclub bouncer, but might be a touch too sensitive for his sport of choice.

Also, don’t score from second on a single while up by double digits in the ninth. Who knows? That might have solved everything right there.

Retaliation, Waiting

Good Things Come To Those Who Wait (If By ‘Things’ You Mean ‘The Chance To Scream At An Opponent Over A Weeks-Old Issue’)

Romo Yells

The Tampa Bay Rays have a young roster. None of their regular starters are 30 years old. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that their pitchers didn’t seem to notice when Washington’s Michael Taylor stole third base against them while his team was leading 9-2 in the sixth inning back on June 6. It was a questionable decision, but when Taylor came up again in the eighth and grounded out against reliever Jose Alvarado, the matter appeared to be closed. (Taylor also came to bat four times the next time the teams played, this past Monday—three of which came with the Rays leading by seven or more runs, a perfect opportunity to drill a guy if a pitcher is so inclined—with nothing of note coming to pass.)

Usually, when a team passes up opportunities to respond to something like Taylor’s steal, it means they don’t much care.

But Sergio Romo cares. On Tuesday, Romo—at 35, the old man of Tampa Bay’s staff—let Taylor know exactly what he thought of his three-week-old steal. Romo couldn’t exactly drill the guy; a closer’s role involves pitching exclusively in games too close to cede free baserunners. Instead, the right-hander struck Taylor out to end the Rays’ 1-0 victory, then unloaded on him verbally before leaving the field.

It’s probably a better option than one of Romo’s colleagues planting a fastball into Taylor’s body, but it nonetheless served to empty the dugouts.

Romo was upset about Taylor’s steal, but he may also have been upset that other guys on his own pitching staff failed to respond to it. Either way, an awful lot of frustration was unleashed there at Tropicana Field.

The enduring question is, why should anybody care? It’s an ages-old conundrum, long memories in baseball, with copious examples from some historical greats. I’ve written in this space about waits endured by various pitchers before they exacted revenge. Bob Gibson and Stan Williams were noteworthy for it. Hell, Nolan Ryan used the occasion of the 1985 All-Star Game to settle a pair of grudges—against Rickey Henderson, who had hot-dogged his trot after homering against the right-hander in 1979, the year before Ryan moved to the National League; and against Dave Winfield, who had charged Ryan’s mound while with San Diego in 1980. Six years was nothing for the master of grudge-settlement, who put a message fastball underneath both hitters’ chins that day, both on 0-2 counts.

A passage in my most recent book, Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, pertains to this very topic:

In a May 18 [1973] game against the Royals at the Coliseum, Bill North let slip his bat on a swing against reliever Doug Bird, the lumber sailing harmlessly between the mound and third base. While going to retrieve it, however, North took an unexpected right turn and pounced upon the unsuspecting pitcher, peppering him with as many punches as he could land before being tackled away by players from both teams. The only guy in the building who wasn’t confused as hell was the guy swinging his fists.

The feud dated back to 1970, when North played for the Quincy (Illinois) Cubs of the Single-A Midwest League. Bird, pitching for Waterloo (Iowa), had given up homers to the two players preceding North in the lineup, and responded (in North’s opinion) by brushing the hitter back. “Hey, man, I didn’t hit those homers,” he snapped at the catcher before settling back into the box. The next pitch, a fastball, hit him in the head with such velocity that North required hospitalization.

“My ear was swollen for two weeks,” the center fielder said by way of explanation following his attack on the pitcher. “Two inches more and I would have been dead.” He’d been keenly waiting for revenge ever since, paying close attention to the transaction wire for the moment that Bird was called up from the minors. The fight occurred during the pitcher’s fourth major league appearance. “I don’t think I could live with myself and not challenge that dude,” North said.

Such certainty did not grip his teammates. “We were all looking at each other going, ‘What the hell is happening?’ ” said Joe Rudi. Added Ray Fosse, “We’re trying to win a championship, and when we found out this guy’s doing something to redress a problem from the minor leagues, we couldn’t believe it.” Joe Cronin suspended North three games and fined him $100.

In that vein, Sergio Romo getting some things off his chest is a feather in the wind. The teams don’t meet again this season, and it sure seems like something that won’t carry over like to next year, those other precedents be damned.

No-Hitter Etiquette

No Hits, No Runs, No More Pitching For You: The Not-So-Lonely Tale Of Nathan Eovaldi

Eovaldi

The first time I ever posted about a manager pulling a pitcher in the middle of a no-hitter, back in April 2010, a month after The Baseball Codes was released, it was a bit of a novelty.

Since that time, I’ve written about it again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again. The novelty has worn off.

It’s still kinda noteworthy when it happens though, and it happened again on Wednesday, when Tampa Bay’s Nathan Eovaldi tossed six hitless innings against the A’s before being pulled by manager Kevin Cash. (As it happens, his opponent, Sean Manaea, was pulled from his own no-hitter last season—the fifth “again” in the above link list.)

The right-hander had thrown only 70 pitches to that point, but was making his first start in nearly a year and a half, having only recently returned from his second Tommy John surgery. The last time the seven-year vet went seven innings was in August, 2016. The last time he went eight was the previous May. The last time he’d thrown a complete game was never. That Cash wanted to take no chances with the pitcher’s long-term health was entirely understandable, but didn’t do much to make the decision more palatable for Eovaldi.

“He just kind of stared at me,” Cash told the Tampa Bay Times, about the moment he informed Eovaldi that the pitcher wouldn’t be heading back out for the seventh.

“I just tried to stay in there,” Eovaldi responded. “I didn’t want to shake his hand. He said, ‘Come on, you’ve got to shake my hand.’ I’m like, ‘All right …’

Tampa Bay’s first reliever, Wilmer Font, gave up a hit to the second batter he faced, but the Rays held on to win, 6-0, while Eovaldi is on track to make his next start, healthy (one hopes) as ever.

***

In a semi-related item to the above story, the A’s did their part to throw a wrench into Eovaldi’s outing.