Protect Teammates, Retaliation

Some Thoughts About Retaliation, What It Means For Clubhouse Standing, And The Kind Of Guys For Whom That Matters

We frequently talk about baseball’s unwritten retaliation rules as having become outdated, an artifact from another era. Which is largely accurate; guys intentionally drilling each other makes less sense today than it ever has.

But set aside that construct for a moment. Today, let’s view things from the viewpoint of a struggling pitcher, desperate to prolong his time in the major leagues. Let’s view things through Sean Nolin’s eyes.

Nolin is a left-hander who prior to this season has had three cups of coffee in the big leagues, each so short that he continues to maintain his rookie status. The last of those stints came in 2015.

The six intervening years have seen two seasons wiped out by shoulder issues, and time spent in Mexico, Japan and the independent Atlantic League. Nolin began this season with the High-A Wilmington Blue Rocks, in the Washington Nationals system. He is now 31 years old.

On July 30, the Nats traded Max Scherzer to LA, Jon Lester to St. Louis and Daniel Hudson to San Diego, opening some spots on their pitching staff. Nolin made his debut for them on Aug. 12.

Sean Nolin is not anyone’s idea of a star. Before yesterday he had appeared in four games for Washington, all starts, going 0-2 with a 5.71 ERA. Whatever impression he made did not include much in the way of mound dominance.

Yesterday’s impression was different. Yesterday he defended a teammate.

Let’s go backward for a moment to Tuesday’s game against Atlanta, when Braves closer Will Smith drilled Juan Soto. Atlanta held a three-run lead with nobody on and one out in the ninth when it happened, and there’s enough history between the two to make it appear intentional.

In August of last season, Smith was taking his warm-up tosses after entering in the middle of the eighth inning, when Soto, the on-deck hitter, sidled behind the plate to get a better scouting angle. Smith cussed him out for it.

Soto came to bat an inning later, at which point he blasted Smith’s first pitch deep over the left-center field fence. He watched it. Then he watched the pitcher. Then Smith said something to him so unkind that Nationals manager Dave Martinez felt the need to intervene.

Since then, Smith has faced Soto six times. The first five came in games Atlanta led by two runs or fewer. On Tuesday the margin was three—enough wiggle room for the pitcher to take some liberties. With his second pitch, he drilled Soto in the small of the back.

Literally one pitch later the game was over, pushing Washington’s response, should they choose to make one, to yesterday. The man to shoulder that burden: Sean Nolin.

There is nothing to indicate that Nolin was ordered by management to take action. Indeed, such a thing is quite rare in the modern game. There is everything to indicate that Nolin had much more to gain by standing up for his young teammate than he had to lose by risking an early ejection.

Sure enough, in the first inning, Nolin—playing by the ages-old adage, “You drill my No. 3 hitter, I’ll drill your No. 3 hitter”—threw his first pitch to Freddy Freeman behind the hitter’s back. With his second pitch he drilled him, and was subsequently ejected.

There’s an essay to be written about the part of baseball’s code that gives Nolin one chance to even the score, and that once he’d missed Freeman accounts should have been considered settled. (Indeed, Freeman said later that he told plate ump Lance Barksdale, “That’s all he gets,” after the first pitch missed.) There’s also one about the class Freeman showed by going to the Washington dugout to talk things over with Martinez, and about how he and Soto took their drillings with grace. Those aren’t this essay, though.

This essay is about the clubhouse standing of a middle-aged man looking to do whatever he can to stick around the big leagues for as long as possible. Nolin’s baseball ability has proven to be a marginal commodity in this regard, placing him squarely inside the realm of ballplayers for whom being a good clubhouse guy might carry outsized importance when it comes to securing his next contract.

In this age of fungible pitching staffs, where the bottom three guys in any bullpen are shuffled back and forth to the minors on a weekly basis, there’s value in having a reputation as somebody willing to stand up for teammates, of a proven willingness to throw the kinds of darts from which some pitchers might shy away. Bottom-of-the-rotation guys must feel the need to prove their value every day, in any way they can.

Sean Nolin knows this. He proved it yesterday. It’s strange to think that a start lasting one-third of an inning might be consequential to somebody’s career prospects, but that may well be the case here. Sean Nolin’s counting on it.

Gamesmanship, Sticky stuff

Gamesmanship In Baseball’s New Age And The Reality Of Unintended Consequences

Gamesmanship has always had a role in baseball. With a sport so deliberate, psychological ploys can find space to breathe, and those that work go down in lore. I devoted an entire chapter to the topic in The Baseball Codes, covering everything from deking runners to the hidden-ball trick.

A favorite story that didn’t make the book involved Pete Rose showing up to the 1978 All-Star Game with a batch of Japanese baseballs provided by his sponsor, Mizuno. The foreign balls were slightly smaller and more tightly wound than their North American counterparts, and traveled farther when hit. Rose convinced his NL teammates to use them during batting practice, and to keep it a secret. He then talked a number of American League players into watching their opponents take some cuts.

Using the smaller balls, the National Leaguers put on a show, blasting drive after drive over the spacious outfield in San Diego. When they were done, they took care to collect all the balls and return them to their clubhouse. Using standard major league baseballs for their own batting practice, the American Leaguers had a much rougher go of things.

How much impact the psyche job had is unknown, but one thing is definite: Rose and his NL teammates won their seventh All-Star Game in a row, 7-3.

***

Today, we are in a new era of gamesmanship based around baseball’s recent obsession with sticky stuff. Not long ago—like, even a week—managers hewed strongly to a tradition that prevented them from asking umpires to inspect the opposing pitcher for hidden substances like pine tar. Because umps did not possess the power to initiate such examinations on their own, this was the only way that pitchers could be checked.

Because every team had players who utilized similar tactics, checking the opponent was a surefire way to have your own pitcher tossed from the game at some point in the future. Restraint from the practice was a matter of self-preservation.

No longer.

Now that umpires are required to examine every pitcher, sometimes at multiple points during a game, managers seem to have eased up when it comes to their own approach to the issue. At least Phillies skipper Joe Girardi has.

On Tuesday, after Washington’s Max Scherzer had already been checked twice by umpires, per league mandate, Girardi stepped up the attention in the fourth inning after he noticed the pitcher run his hand through his hair while on the mound. The manager’s postgame explanation involved the suspicion that Scherzer was hiding some sort of substance there, based in part on Girardi never having noticed Scherzer self-toussle like that.

In many corners, however, people suggested that Girardi was merely trying to rattle the pitcher, who had been visibly annoyed during his previous searches.

Gamesmanship.

***

Grover Cleveland Alexander’s strikeout of Tony Lazzeri to snuff out a bases-loaded rally in Game 7 of the 1926 World Series is an iconic baseball moment. Less remembered is the detail that when Alexander—39 years old and having pitched a complete-game victory over the Yankees only a day earlier—was called in from the bullpen, he took his time getting to the mound. Like, he really took his time.

By that point in his career, Alexander was unflappable. He also knew that Lazzeri, while coming off of an excellent season, was a 22-year-old rookie who had never before faced such pressure. As Les Bell said in Peter Golenbock’s Spirit of St. Louis, “At that moment, [Lazzeri] was a youngster up against a master.”

Alexander’s extra-languorous stroll to the mound very intentionally gave Lazzeri extra time to think. And as we all learned from Bull Durham, thinking is not a ballplayer’s ally. It was pure gamesmanship, intended to get an opponent off of his mark, and it worked. Lazzeri fanned, rally snuffed and lead maintained, Alexander pitched two more shutout innings to clinch the title for St. Louis.

***

For Scherzer, the reality was that he had just inadvertently thrown a 1-2 pitch toward the head of Nationals hitter Alec Bohm, which Bohm had only narrowly managed to avoid, and was desperate to find some extra tack to help him grip the ball. Rosin is legal on a big league mound, but without a mixing agent Scherzer was stuck. It was a cool night, and the right-hander wasn’t sweating much. In fact, the only place he could find some accumulated moisture was under his cap. So he ran his hand through his hair.

After the right-hander threw two straight strikes to whiff Bohm, Girardi pounced.

Here’s the thing about gamesmanship: It works best when an opponent has a weakness to exploit. For Scherzer, it was twofold. One is that he’s an avowed supporter of tack, and has already been named in an ongoing drama that involves Angeles clubhouse man Bubba Harkins providing sticky substances for players around the league. The other part has to do with a groin injury that cost the pitcher nearly two weeks, during which time MLB announced its no-tolerance policy. Monday’s start was Scherzer’s first since June 11, and he’d had only one bullpen session to prepare for his new, tack-free reality.

Was Girardi pointedly trying to exploit these details? He vehemently denied it, but the Nationals don’t seem to believe him.

***

On May 29, 1974, Minnesota’s Jerry Terrell came to the plate at Fenway Park with runners at the corners and one out in the top of the 13th inning. The score was 4-4. As Red Sox pitcher Diego Segui went into his windup, Terrell bent down to grab some dirt from the batter’s box—a trick he’d learned as an amateur to lure a pitcher into halting his delivery. Such a tactic isn’t legal in the big leagues, with rule 4.06(a)—falling under the Unsportsmanlike Conduct category—specifically prohibiting the calling of time while a ball is in play “for the obvious purpose of trying to make the pitcher commit a balk.”

On that day, umpires didn’t catch it. Segui paused, the balk was called, and what would be the winning run crossed the plate.

Gamesmanship won again.

***

As Scherzer finished the inning, Nationals coaches—clearly unimpressed with Girardi’s strategy, be it gamesmanship or a genuine suspicion that Scherzer was cheating—unloaded on the manager. So too did Scherzer, who stared daggers into the Phillies dugout as he walked off of the field. Upon reaching his bench, he repeatedly showed Girardi his cap and glove, shouting, “They’re clean! They’re clean!” as he mockingly ran his hand through his hair.

When Washington hitting coach Kevin Long—formerly on Girardi’s staff with the Yankees—continued the verbal assault, Girardi stormed the field ready to fight, and ended up ejected. Later, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo called Girardi “a con artist.”

There is an old story from the early part of the 20th century involving a fastball pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals who was giving the Pirates fits. Pittsburgh shortstop Honus Wagner’s solution was, while batting, to catch one of those fastballs barehanded and insouciantly toss it back to the mound. With two strikes in the count the umpire called Wagner out, but the tactic worked. According to legend, anyway, the pitcher walked the next five hitters.

Girardi’s ploy, whatever its motivations, did not have a similar effect. Scherzer walked the next batter following his mound inspection, but retired five straight after that to earn his sixth win of the year in a 3-2 Nationals victory.

The main question we’re faced with now is whether Girardi’s con (if it actually was a con) will take root. Max Scherzer is too stout a pitcher, both mentally and physically, to be trapped by such shenanigans (if they actually were shenanigans), but other pitchers—especially in a league dominated by 20-something-year-old relievers—are more suspect.

Just as MLB rules prohibit a hitter from calling time in order to discombobulate a pitcher, so too do they prohibit a manager from executing a substance check for similar reasons. The umpire’s in Tuesday’s game, in fact, conferred before checking Scherzer, to confirm the validity of Girardi’s point.

That alone is an endorsement for the purity of the manager’s motivation. Whether he should have done what he did is a different story, however, as is the fact that such a tactic has now been inexorably planted into the heads of every coaching staff in baseball. If Billy Martin can wait until the right moment to have the umpires check George Brett’s bat, you can bet that there’s somebody out there right now anticipating a key spot in an upcoming pennant race to pull this particular card from his back pocket.

We can only sit back and watch the fireworks explode when he does.

Umpire Relations

No Strike 3 For You: The High Cost Of Scuffing An Umpire’s Ego During the World Series

Game 5 of the World Series gave us a particularly interesting moment during the course of an otherwise dull blowout: After a host of questionable ball-strike calls, plate ump Lance Barksdale outdid himself during the sixth inning.

Nats right-hander Tanner Rainey threw a 2-2 fastball to Michael Brantley that should have been called strike three, after which catcher Yan Gomes popped up from his crouch to toss the ball around the infield. Apparently he did so a bit too quickly, preempting Barksdale’s official decision. To teach Gomes a lesson, Barksdale called the pitch a ball and kept the at-bat alive.

“You were taking off on me,” Barksdale said when Gomes asked what happened.

The catcher was incredulous, replying, “Oh, it’s my fault?”

A few things happened here. One, Gomes turned around to converse with the plate ump. In a world of sensitive egos and well-established rules of comportment, this is an absolute no-no. Catchers question umpires’ calls all the time, but they inevitably do so from the squat, while facing the pitcher. “You never show them up—that’s the worst thing you can do,” former Tigers catcher Jim Price said in an interview for The Baseball Codes. “Don’t ever turn around to talk to them.”

Occasionally, the umpire will walk around and dust off the plate in order to face the catcher and offer an eye-to-eye retort. It can be vocal and it can be personal, but it’s also private, done behind a mask. Nobody watching from the stands or on TV realizes anything is happening. This is time-tested baseball tradition.

“The best advice that I can give is to have a little dialogue with the home plate umpire throughout the game,” longtime catcher Michael Barrett told ESPN in 2007. “Break the tension a little bit. Realize that the home plate umpire is the authority and make sure to communicate with him during the game and as the game goes on. It’s important to understand that the umpire is human, he’s going to make mistakes like everyone else, and we are going to have a better relationship if we are talking.”

Who knows what Gomes might have already said to Barksdale over the course of the game, though in light of the umpire’s consistently shaky calls, some sort of dialog between them wouldn’t be surprising.

Former Yankees reliever George Frazier once found himself in a similar situation as pertains to prematurely reacting to what he believed to be strike three. As Frazier told it during an interview for The Baseball Codes, it was the ninth inning in Baltimore, and Len Sakata was at the plate with two strikes and two outs.  

“I painted a slider and took a hop toward the dugout,” he said. “I’m looking in [at plate umpire Durwood Merrill], and he’s looking at me. Then he comes out toward the mound. I’m from Oklahoma, and he was a big OU football recruiter—he recruited Billy Sims from Texas. He said, ‘What are you doin’, Okie?’ I said, ‘Man, come on! That ball was right there.’ He says ‘OK, put it there again and we’ll ring him up.’ ”

Frazier agreed … but didn’t execute.

“I threw a pitch that literally bounced a foot out in front of the plate,” he said. “Durwood had already started his wind to ring him up, and he’s walking off. The umpires had to go down our dugout steps, where I’m walking off too, and he’s growling, ‘Don’t ever do that to me again.’ Sakata was right behind him, yelling, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me!’ ”

“Durwood said to me, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘You shoulda rung him up on the other one!’ ”

(For what it’s worth, Frazier never faced Sakata in the described circumstance. As is the way with ballplayers telling decades-old stories, details are known to inadvertently blur.)

The difference between Frazer and Rainey was that Lance Barksdale was working the freaking World Series. Petty displays of ego shouldn’t be part of an umpire’s tool kit in the first place, but in the postseason they need to be put away entirely. Luckily, the call on Brantley had no bearing on the game’s outcome, but strikes are strikes and balls are balls and, sure, calls might get blown, but for a guy to try to teach a lesson to a veteran catcher on the sport’s biggest stage is downright shameful.

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.

Intimidation

Let’s Talk About What To Do When Teams Hit Too Many Home Runs In A Row

Shortly after The Baseball Codes came out, I was asked by a radio guy about my favorite unwritten rule. It was an odd but interesting question—one that somehow, through the five-year process of researching and writing the book, I had never considered. The rule that first popped into my head did so, I think, because it’s quaint and outdated, and paints the long-ago baseball landscape in which it existed as entirely foreign, like some pastoral English countryside. It holds that a player should not swing at the first pitch after back-to-back home runs. Given this week’s power barrage, it seems like an appropriate discussion point.

The idea is one of courtesy. I’ll let Hal McRae explain:

“Look, there have been two consecutive home runs hit. The third batter doesn’t swing at the first pitch. Take the first pitch. Alert the pitcher that you’re not swinging, that you know he’s out there, you respect him, you respect the job that he’s trying to do. So you take the first pitch, saying, ‘I’m not going to try to come up here and try to hit the third consecutive home run.’ After the first pitch it’s okay for you to do your job. . . . Don’t go up there and take a swing from your heels on the first pitch. Get in the box loosely. Let him know, okay, I’m not swinging. I know you’re out there trying to do a job. And I have to do a job, but you’ve just given up back-to-back home runs. So I take the first pitch.”

Early on, the rule actually covered any home run, not only back-to-back jobs. These days, of course, it’s entirely off the table. Hitters swing freely at whatever they see, regardless of circumstance.

Take this week, for instance. We’ve already seen one team hit back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs, and another slug three in a row. As it turned out, of the four Nationals homers off of Padres reliever Craig Stammen on Sunday, the final three came on the reliever’s second pitch. Of the three Diamondbacks to take Phillies right-hander Jerad Eickhoff deep to lead off their game Monday, all went deep into the count.

This is undoubtedly a matter of circumstance more than etiquette. It’s a safe bet that none of the seven hitters considered the above rule. Hell, it’s a safe bet that none of the seven hitters has heard of the above rule. Which is part of what makes it my favorite, the kind of thing left for discussion with old-timers.

That’s not the only thing at play here, though. Numerous teams have hit four straight home runs, but only rarely do they do so against one pitcher, without a reliever being summoned someplace along the way. In fact, Stammen was only the fourth hurler in big league history to bear that weight. “You want to dig a hole, crawl behind the mound and go in that hole and never return every time you give up a home run,” he said in an MLB.com report. “To give up four in a row, just times that by four. It doesn’t feel good. But it’s your job to go out there and make pitches. That’s what I was trying to do. I didn’t do it today.”

The other unwritten rule that comes into play here—which seems nearly as outdated as not swinging at the first pitch following back-to-back jobs—is the idea of making somebody uncomfortable at the plate. This is purely strategic, the power of an inside pitch that moves a hitter’s feet and backs him up in the box. The more a batter has to concentrate on the possibility of avoiding a baseball, after all, the less he can concentrate on hitting.

I discussed this in 2017, when the Nationals (none of them overlapping with the Washington quartet that recently did it again) hit four straight dongs off of Milwaukee’s Michael Blazek. I quoted longtime reliever Bob McClure telling his own story of similar frustration:

“We were in Yankee Stadium one time, and I gave up back-to-back home runs to two left-handers. I’d given up back-to-back home runs before, but not to two lefties. Dave Kingman was up next. [Catcher] Charlie Moore called for a fastball away. He knew better, anyway. He was just going through them all. Fastball away. No. Curveball. No. Changeup. No. Fastball in. No. And then he goes [McClure flicks his thumb from out of his fist, under his index finger, the universal symbol for knock him down]. So I threw it, and it was a good one—it went right underneath him and almost flipped him. He hit the dirt and was all dusty. His helmet was off. He grabbed his bat and his helmet and gets right back in there. I threw him a changeup and he popped up to first base.

The upshot, from McClure: “Back then, we were taught the 0-2 up and in. Home run, next guy: boom! Knock him down.”

That tactic—not hitting a guy, but disrupting his concentration—might have served Stammen well had he chosen to employ it. It certainly couldn’t have hurt. Instead, of the 12 pitches the right-hander threw to the four homer hitters, only one—the second pitch of the entire sequence—ran inside. The Nats seem to have appreciated this.  

Similar advice could have been utilized by Dylan Bundy last season, or David Bush back in 2010.

Given the ever-increasing incidences of home-run barrages (Washington’s recent quartet came as part of a game that saw 13 longballs), this kind of strategy seems more necessary now than ever. Which doesn’t in any way mean that pitchers will use it, of course.

Retaliation

Votto Visits Venomous Vibes Upon Retaliatory Reliever

Votto

In an old-fashioned game of payback in Washington on Saturday, Joey Votto drew the short straw.

It began in the sixth inning, when Reds righty Austin Brice plunked Bryce Harper in the knee. It was completely unintentional, what with being an 82-mph curveball and all, and would have meant less had Harper not departed the following inning with a team-described “stinger.”

It would almost certainly have drawn less notice had Cincinnati’s next pitcher, Jesus Reyes, not opened the seventh by drilling Washington catcher Spencer Kieboom. This one was a 96-mph sinker, but was even more clearly unintentional than Brice’s pitch, given that it was Reyes’ big league debut and Kieboom was the first batter he’d ever faced.

Once, two of mine—even unintentionally—meant one of yours. It was showdown baseball, prevalent in a long-gone era when message pitches, even those aimed toward the head, were accepted tactics. That brand of baseball hasn’t been played in a long while, but it was revisited on Saturday by Nats reliever Ryan Madson, who responded to Brice and Reyes by drilling Cincinnati’s best player, Joey Votto, just above his right knee. The situation was perfect—there were two outs with nobody on, the Nationals led by four, and Votto presented an obvious target. Madson’s weapon: a 96-mph fastball.

 

Votto got up slowly, and had some words for the pitcher as he hobbled to first base. Madsen, who at least drilled the hitter below the belt, paid no attention, not even looking Votto’s way. Upon reaching first base, Votto amped up the volume, shouting some easily lip-readable epithets toward the mound.

Afterward, Madsen offered standard platitudes about the pitch being a mistake. He also said, believably, “I never want to hurt a guy, never.” Votto didn’t say anything, departing the ballpark before reporters were let into the clubhouse.

If there is to be a response, it didn’t happen on Sunday, in a game that never held more than a two-run differential—hardly an occasion to cede free baserunners. (Votto did finally comment on the situation, though, saying in the Cincinnati Enquirer: “Getting hit is a part of the game. Once you step into that box, you accept that getting hit could very well be part of the process.”)

If either team wants to continue this, it’ll have to wait until next season.

Don't Call Out Teammates in the Press, Omerta Code, The Baseball Codes

Addition By Subtraction: Nationals Thin Out Bullpen Roster For Non-Baseball Reasons

Kintzler

The big news out of Washington at the trade deadline was that the Nationals opted against shipping Bryce Harper out of town for the final two months of his contract. The small news was that they traded reliever Brandon Kintzler—a 33-year-old with a 15-16 record over parts of nine seasons—to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for a low-ceiling pitcher in Single-A.

More interesting than the trade itself is why it was made.

According to the Washington Post, Kintzler became a persona non grata around Nationals Park after speaking to the media about what came to be described as a “dysfunctional” Washington clubhouse. (What he actually said, or even whether he even said it, is less important than the team’s feelings about the situation.)

From Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports:

“The clubhouse is a mess,” said one source, whose account was corroborated by three others who spoke to Yahoo Sports on the condition of anonymity out of fear the organization would punish them for speaking publicly. While the sources pinpointed a number of causes for the internal acrimony, they agreed that it was not purely a function of the Nationals’ underachievement but something that has festered throughout the season.

Never mind that at least four people—the source and three corroborators—spoke to Passan. Kintzler seems to have been fingered as the fall guy.

The internal reaction to this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. A sign that has hung in many big league clubhouses over the years reads: “What you see here, what you do here, what you say here, let it stay here.” Excommunicating those who choose to ignore it is nothing new.

“Players who are foolish enough to discuss what went on in a closed clubhouse meeting, or reveal that two players almost killed each other after the game, often turn up on other teams the next year,” wrote former pitcher and coach Tom House in his 1989 book, The Jock’s Itch. “That kind of behavior just isn’t acceptable. You must be loyal to your teammates, even though you may hate every last one of them.”

The notion is pervasive. For just one example, in 2011, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who had led the franchise to its first championship since 1917, looked on as his son spilled a variety of clubhouse secrets via Twitter. Guillen didn’t make it through the ensuing season, and apart from an aborted run in Miami in 2012, hasn’t managed since.

“Everybody wants to know what the team meeting was about,” said Dusty Baker. “Well, that’s the team meeting. If you are on the team, we’ll tell you. It’s not being anti-press, it’s not being secretive, it’s just how it is.”

Washington’s party line is that the team has a stout back end of the bullpen even without Kintzler, and wants to give a shot to rookie Wander Suero. Maybe this is the case. Then again, GM Mike Rizzo also said this:

In semi-related news, Washington also designated reliever Shawn Kelly for assignment after his sub-Little League reaction to giving up a homer in a blowout win.

The connective tissue between these moves, other than that both players pitched for the Nationals, was that they were both seen as expendable. Nats closer Shawn Doolilttle may be the least likely guy in the league to throw his glove in such a manner, but if he did, or if he’d leaked things to the press, you’d better believe that the team would give him every opportunity to make things right.

Kintzler and Kelley are not on that level. And when it comes time to shake things up on an underperforming roster, they’re just the type of players who can be easily thrown into the line of fire.

 

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.

Deke Appropriately, Deking

Pedro Florimon, Master Magician, Offers Sleight-Of-Hand Clinic to Trea Turner

Florimon deke

Dekes—fielders making runners think that something is happening on the field that’s not actually happening—can be marvelous things.

In baseball’s unwritten rulebook, they are only problematic when they put somebody in danger—primarily in the form of a late phantom tag, laid down when the ball is actually someplace else, forcing a runner into a hurried and awkward slide.

Barring that, however, the play can be a wonder to behold. Take, for example, Philadelphia shortstop Pedro Florimon, who last Saturday retired Trea Turner with some delightful trickery. The Nationals were down 3-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning when Turner drew a leadoff walk and, on the first pitch to the next batter, Matt Wieters, took off for second.

The trouble for Turner was that Wieters popped the ball up to second base. The other trouble for Turner was that he never peeked toward the plate to gauge what was happening. Thus, when Florimon drifted to the bag as if to receive a throw from catcher Andrew Knapp, Turner had little reason to disbelieve that Florimon was actually receiving a throw from catcher Andrew Knapp. The shortstop even punctuated the act by laying a tag upon the unsuspecting baserunner as he stood atop the bag.

Second baseman Cesar Hernandez, meanwhile, was able to complete the easiest double-play of his life, finishing the play while Turner was still in a state of puzzlement at second. (Watch the whole thing here.)

“Usually, I hear the ball off the bat, so a lot of times if I hear it, I’ll look up,” Turner said after the game in a Washington Post report. “I didn’t hear it that time.”

It is the responsibility of every baserunner to have a handle on whatever situation he finds himself in. Failure to glance plateward cost Lonnie Smith in the most famous deke of modern times, in the 1991 World Series, and it cost Turner last weekend.

It’s likely not a mistake he’ll ever make a second time.

Managers Protect Their Players, The Baseball Codes

On Managers Protecting Their Players: Strasburg Saga Shows Baker Going to Bat for his Boys

Dusty Nats

For a while there, it appeared that Tanner Roark would start the make-or-break NLDS Game 4 for the Washington Nationals instead of Stephen Strasburg. This struck most people as odd because while both were fully rested, Strasburg is an excellent pitcher, Roark somewhat less so. Up until a couple hours before game time, though, the Nationals said that Roark would get the call. We’re still not totally sure why.

At first, Washington manager Dusty Baker attributed it to Strasburg having thrown a full bullpen session on Tuesday, leaving him too depleted to make the start. Then we found out that the right-hander had actually thrown on Monday.

Baker mentioned something about mold in the team hotel. He hinted at Strasburg (and other players, maybe) being under the weather. What he didn’t say, but USA Today’s Bob Nightengale did, was that the pitcher had effectively removed himself from the rotation:

The Nationals were all set to pitch him Wednesday in Game 4 at 4:08 p.m. ET (TBS) at Wrigley Field, trailing 2-1 to the Chicago Cubs, only for Strasburg to decline.

He told them he’s under the weather.

He informed the Nationals’ staff that he ran a half-mile Tuesday afternoon, was wheezing during his run and simply isn’t prepared to start Wednesday, even though he’d be on regular rest, according to a person with direct knowledge of the Nationals’ pitching plans.

This is not a story about whether Strasburg’s decision was appropriate, or what ultimately led him to reconsider. It is a story about the steps major league managers take to shield their players from unnecessary—and often unflattering—attention. It is the reason that Baker has long been known as a “player’s manager,” someone able to get maximum production out of guys who adore him. For any faults in Baker’s managerial accumen, this is an undeniable strength.

It is not difficult to see what the opposite approach can bring. For an example, look toward the second-to-last day of the 2004 season, with Oakland needing to win two straight against the Angels to force a divisional tie. Barry Zito pitched exceedingly well for the A’s, giving up three hits and two walks over seven innings, at which point Oakland held a 4-2 lead. Then manager Ken Macha pulled him, the bullpen imploded, and the A’s lost, 5-4, missing the playoffs for the first time in five years.

One problem for Zito was that after the game, Macha told reporters that Zito could have pitched the eighth if he wanted to. The left-hander—who’d thrown 114 pitches and was suffering from cramping in his legs—had decided that the team’s fortunes would be better off with its bullpen, and asked out. Macha let everyone know.

Asked about the revelation in the postgame clubhouse, Zito was dismayed. “Obviously, I’m the ass around here,” he told reporters. He waited until Macha was fired two years later, however, to truly unburden himself, telling the San Francisco Chronicle that “I felt like [Macha] didn’t protect me.”

Zito was hardly alone. With the manager gone, players up and down the roster began to chime in. Earlier in the season, Macha had described the absence of outfielder Mark Kotsay—who had battled a back injury all season long—in a game against Tampa Bay as “puzzling.” Two days earlier, Kotsay said he’d needed to duct-tape himself together to simply show up to the ballpark.

“I felt disrespected,” Kotsay said upon Macha’s dismissal. “The ‘puzzling’ comment really threw me. My manager didn’t have my back, and every manager’s first business is to protect his players. That totally lost my trust in that relationship, between us as player and manager.”

The commentary didn’t stop there. “I know that the one thing any player wants from his manager is to be protected,” added A’s catcher Jason Kendall. “If there’s a bang-bang play at first, even if you’re out, if you’re arguing, you want someone there behind you. If you argue a pitch, even if you’re wrong, you want someone joining in. And I’m not sure Macha did that.”

This is a lot of calories burned by players on a guy who no longer had any influence over them. It shows just how deeply such actions can cut.

Another example can be found from the 1966 season, when Astros second baseman Ron Brand took the fall after rookie shortstop Sonny Jackson mishandled the feed on a potential double-play against Pittsburgh, enabling a rally that eventually cost Houston the game. It was a calculated move on Brand’s part, protecting his young teammate from criticism. That very day, the Astros acquired aging infielder Gene Freese, batting .208, from the White Sox. When Houston began its next series against the Mets, Brand was shocked to see Freese’s name in the starting lineup in place of his own. Freese hadn’t played second base regularly in a decade. Brand figured it had something to do with the error.

Speaking to manager Grady Hatton about it, he addressed the issue directly, asking whether Hatton thought the play was his fault. “No,” said the manager, “I know what happened. But I can’t leave myself open to criticism by playing a catcher at second base.” (Brand’s primary position was catcher, but he had been signed as a shortstop and had fielded well as a fill-in second baseman.)

“He threw me under the bus, is what he did,” said Brand, still rankled years later.

In 2006, Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen—perhaps feeling a bit invincible after winning the World Series the previous season—actually boasted about his ability to publicly roast his players. A feature in Playboy introduced him with the following sentiment:

Guillen proudly claims he “’leads the league in throwing players under the bus.” Last season he suggested White Sox pitcher Damaso Marte was faking an injury, blamed veteran hitter Frank Thomas for contributing to the team’s prior bad attitude and called former White Sox player Magglio Ordonez a piece of shit. During a September losing streak, Guillen told the press, “We flat-out stink.”

Guillen did not hold back on his rationale. “My pitcher, Mark Buehrle, said in the press last season that the Texas Rangers were using light signals to cheat,” he said. “When they asked me about it, I said the way Buehrle was throwing, Texas didn’t need to cheat. He was throwing shit. The next day, Brandon McCarthy threw an eight-inning shutout for us. If I had protected Buehrle, people would have wondered what the fuck I was talking about. So I throw my players under the bus because I don’t want them to have an excuse for anything. If you’re horseshit, you’re horseshit. If you’re good, you’re good. Don’t make yourself look like an idiot.”

That season, White Sox players drove over a t-shirt, leaving tire treads, wrote “Under the bus” on it, and presented it to the manager.

***

On the other hand, managers who do the opposite, like Baker, are enduringly appreciated. Protection covers on-field miscues, hangover- or STD-induced absences, and any other manner of impropriety. It has nothing to do with internal discipline, which can be meted out in any way the manager sees fit—only the public perception about what’s actually happening.

One guy who came around entirely was Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams. In Williams’ first gig, with the Red Sox in the late 1960s, his success was undeniable, but his style was so grating that he was fired midway into the 1969 season despite having recently led Boston to its first World Series in 21 years, and second since Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees.

Among the clubhouse complaints was Williams’ habit of conducting postgame interviews nearby the locker of whichever player may have made an error in that night’s game, and, in the words of pitcher Bill Lee, “pointing out how horseshit he was.” It was an expedient way to lose support among the ranks.

By the time Williams got his next job, in Oakland, he was just as hard-edged—he went off on players all the time—but he had learned to do it in private. Not only that, but the manager went out of his way to protect his players from the press. A prime example came during the 1972 World Series, when first baseman Mike Epstein accosted Williams on a team flight about having been removed for a defensive replacement late in Game 2. It was an alcohol-fueled, profanity-laden tirade, unleashed in full view of the reporters who traveled with the team. Williams, in no mood, shouted right back. By morning, details were being reported across the country, and Williams did what he had to do. From Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic:

The following day the manager, eyes firmly on the Reds, walked back his previous sentiments. “I can’t blame a ballplayer for feeling bad about coming out,” he told the press, confirming that Epstein would be in the starting lineup for Game 3, again batting cleanup. “If he feels bad about coming out, that shows that he wants to play. And don’t forget, I had five or six scotches at the time.” It was Williams at his best. He needed Epstein’s focus in Game 3; sacrificing himself on a public pyre was a small price to pay for it.”

Seven days later, the A’s won the World Series, and went on to win the next two as well. Ultimately, Williams’s reaction is the kind of thing that leads to winning baseball.

There’s a reason Baker is a three-time manager of the year.