Eons ago, it seems now, Yogi Berra had a handy response to those who thought he looked like one of the title supporting players in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes. “It don’t matter if you’re ugly in this racket,” the Hall of Famer said, “All you have to do is hit the ball. And I never saw anybody hit one with his face.”
Berra got a few laughs while he drove home one point. But the flip side is that you can see one hitter too many take one with his face, which is every hitter who ever had to do it.
Thank God and His servant Stengel that it’s still the exception. It still doesn’t erase the fear of longtime watchers and fans that the latest such victim will be the game’s next Tony Conigliaro. Such fears even among his critics struck when Bryce Harper’s face was in the top of the sixth Wednesday night.
Hit one with his face? Harper led off the inning seeing one pitch from Cardinals reliever Genesis Cabrera. The pitch sailed up and into Harper’s nose on the left side while knocking his batting helmet clean off his head and the Phillies’ right fielder crumpling to the ground in the batter’s box.
The man who nearly went from Genesis to Revelation merely picked himself up, dusted himself off, and walked away from the plate under his own power. Rather gutsy for a man who was lucky he wasn’t decapitated by a fastball that veered so far off course it would have inspired “Mayday! Mayday!” calls from the crew if it was an airplane.
What we ought to be hearing now is louder demands that the ridiculous three-batter minimum for relief pitchers unless they ended an inning facing fewer needs to go the way of the Oldsmobile. Faster than the Oldsmobile went away, too.
Phillies manager Joe Girardi anguished for his man but maintained in the moment, sending Matt Joyce out to pinch run. Then Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius checked in at the plate. He saw one pitch from Cabrera, too. This time, the errant fastball didn’t sail up toward his sight lines but, rather, did a magnificent job of trying to bore a hole in his ribs.
The umpiring crew issued warnings to both sides. Nothing more. Since a manager can’t remove an out-of-control relief pitcher until he’s seen three batters minimum under the current and extremely dubious rule, it should be on their heads as to why Cabrera was allowed to remain in the game despite two pitches dropping two batters dangerously enough.
That was enough to send Girardi sailing out of his dugout in raw fury. As might you if you’d seen the first two of your men scheduled to bat in the inning coned and drilled back-to-back, on two pitches, courtesy of a pitcher who’d just entered the game but shown as much control as a runaway truck.
Raw fury and naked fear. Girardi knows only too well the terror of fastballs reaching your face. He took one in his own pan from then-Padres pitcher Woody Williams in 2000. As happened to Harper Wednesday night, that Williams pitch drew blood from Girardi’s own schnozzola. “It’s extremely scary,” he said of Harper’s drop, “and I can tell you from experience.”
Under normal circumstances, Girardi is one of the more mild-mannered men in baseball, even given his well-known competitiveness. But he was enraged almost as much by the umps not even thinking of sending Cabrera to the rest of the night off as he was by his first two sixth-inning swingers getting hit by those out-of-control fastballs.
“I understand why they give the warnings, right?” he told reporters. “I understand they don’t want things to escalate. They don’t want people to get hit. But if a guy hits a guy in the face and a guy in the ribs with two pitches, he’s got to go, right? If you’re really protecting the players, obviously, he doesn’t have command. He’s got to go.”
So Girardi fumed to the umpires and, rather theatrically, turned to Cabrera and made the gesture umpires usually use when they’re giving someone the ho-heave. If you can think of any precedent for a manager throwing an opposing player out of the game, Girardi might like to know it. The gesture proved only that, lawfully.
But it also proved Girardi’s own departure, when plate umpire Chris Segal promptly did to him what he believed appropriately should have been done to Cabrera. As he walked off the field following the thumb, Girardi barked at Cabrera, “Throw the [fornicating] ball over the plate!” Not an unreasonable demand.
He also exchanged a bark or three from a distance with Cardinals manager Mike Schildt, who spoke after the game like a man who didn’t exactly have in mind trying to beat the other guys by assassination instead of playing baseball.
Schildt also admitted something that flies in the face of the pan-damn-ic inspired three-batter relief minimum rule. If not for that rule, Schildt told reporters, he would have gotten Cabrera out of the game the moment Harper hit the deck.
“That’s a failure of the three-batter minimum,” he told the press. “It absolutely is that. Completely, absolutely, no doubt. But that’s an outlier of it.” He’s right about the hit batsmen issue with one pitcher whose control went AWOL for the evening. But as The Athletic’s Matt Gelb observes rightly enough, “The rule was designed to quicken games (it has not) and has generated unintended consequences (too many to count).”
Schildt won’t hear Girardi complain. This very circumstance—a pitcher brought in with his control missing stuck for three batters even if he hits one, never mind two—has been one of Girardi’s primary exhibits when fuming, as he’s done from the moment it poked its nose out of its hole, against the three-batter minimum.
After Grigorius took his base to set up first and second, Andrew McCutchen singled Joyce home to break the three-all tie and chase Cabrera out of the game. One inning later, Grigorius himself sent Alec Bohm home on a bases-loaded sacrifice fly with what proved to be the final score, 5-3 Phillies.
Then things got a little testy in the bottom of the eighth, after Phillies reliever Sam Coonrod shook off Nolan Arenado’s leadoff single to strike Paul DeJong out and lure Tyler O’Neill—who’d hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the second—into a broken-bat grounder to short that Grigorius might have caught but took on the hop for a step-and-throw, inning-ending double play.
Viewers at home then saw a commercial followed by Coonrod walking off the field, but not without pointing and hollering at the Cardinals dugout. Small wonder. During the commercial break, Coonrod looked as though he wanted nothing more than to bake five and twenty Redbirds in a pie.
Phillies third baseman Brad Miller—whose own two-run bomb tied the game at three in the first place an inning before Harper and Grigorius got coned and drilled—tried to stop Coonrod before inadvertently letting go of the reliever’s hand. But Coonrod, himself a St. Louis product, put all thoughts of one-man demolition out of his mind and settled for a few hollerings, though he knew in his heart of gut Cabrera wasn’t exactly trying to vapourise his two teammates.
“As a teammate, you appreciate the intensity,” Miller told reporters after the game. “The dude came in and got some big outs for us. It’s a close game. And, yeah, he was a little fired up, obviously. Three getting hit like that was pretty scary.” “Three,” of course, refers to Harper’s uniform number.
Cabrera himself was genuinely contrite after the game—wasn’t he? “I want to apologise for all of the action that happened, especially to Harper,” he said through his translator. “I really wish him the best. I hope he has a speedy recovery, in whatever it is that happened, and that he’ll be able to return to baseball activities. The game got away from me at that point. I’m really sorry for everything that happened today. None of it was intentional. And again, I’m sorry for everything.”
Is it just me, or did a lot of Cabrera’s remark sound like prepared boilerplate?
Struggling teams are known to feel more than a little fired back up after confronting near-disaster. Until Wednesday night, the Phillies were a back-and-forth .500 team with inconsistency at the plate and arson out of the bullpen. What they showed after Harper and Grigorius got drilled reminds you that it’s a somewhat sad thing if and when a team rehorses and irons up after coming face to face with near manslaughter.