Harper’s class can’t fix a true pitching dilemna

Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper took the highest road before Thursday’s Phillies-Cardinals game. Phillies reliever Hector Neris took the lowest in the ninth Thursday night.

When the Phillies and the Cardinals tangled the night after Bryce Harper and Didi Grigorius took back-to-back drills, from Cardinal reliever Genesis Cabrera’s first two pitches of the top of the sixth, you’d have understood almost completely if the Phillies came out bent on making the Cardinals pay.

You’d have understood because a) Harper’s was the truly frightening one, taking a runaway 97mph fastball on the left side of his nose that knocked his helmet clean off and him to the ground; and, b) the umpires saw fit to issue nothing but warnings to both side, without doing what one of today’s most foolish new rules bars a manager from doing.

But therefore you wouldn’t have known that Harper himself put a stop to any possibility of all-out war before the Phillies and the Cardinals met again Thursday. Until Phillies reliever Hector Neris said not so fast in the bottom of the ninth at Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado’s expense.

I couldn’t find the exact words in question, but Harper sent Cardinals manager Mike Schildt a text message saying, essentially, Your guy wasn’t trying to decapitate me, he had an off night, you know it and I know it, and I didn’t get my brains blown out or my head torn off, so don’t let it blow you or him apart, my dudes, we’re good.

Whatever the actual words Harper sent Schildt the day after he nearly went from Genesis to Revelation, Schildt was nothing but appreciative. It’s not every day that an almost-headless man shows a little empathy for the unintended executioner.

“Whoever’s a fan of Bryce Harper, whoever has children that are fans of Bryce Harper, support that guy,” Schildt told reporters. “Because what he sent over in a message today was completely a class act.”

If anyone knows the difference between lack of intent and deadly intent, it should be Harper. Four years ago, almost, then-Giants pitcher Hunter Strickland opened the top of the eighth facing then-National Harper by hitting Harper in the hip—in payback for a three-year-old pair of postseason home runs—with a pitch so obvious that Stevie Wonder would have seen intent without blinking twice.

Before the rule mandating relief pitchers face three batters at minimum unless he came in mid-inning and ended the inning before a third batter faced, Schildt by his own Wednesday night post-game admission would have gotten Cabrera the hell out of there after following Harper’s near-beheading with a drill through Grigorius’s ribs.

Why the umpires didn’t remains a mystery at this writing. The umps have been asleep at the switches an awful lot this season thus far, on the field and even in the replay review rooms in New York. If they’re not calling strikes on pitches far enough from the zone that you could fly a plane through the space, they’re calling walkoff hit by pitches on near-flagrant bids to take one for the team with the pillows stuffed.

On Wednesday night, they warned both the Phillies and the Cardinals against any further funny business. Then, they ejected Phillies manager Joe Girardi when he sailed out of his dugout demanding accountability for Cabrera’s obvious wildness following the Grigorius drill.

“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?” Schildt himself told the press post-game. “If you’re really protecting the players, obviously, he doesn’t have command. He’s got to go.”

The official rules don’t specify when an umpire can order a wild pitcher out of a game on behalf of keeping peace. But The Baseball Codes author Jason Turnbow, writing on his Website of the same name, says the arbiters have the option by default: “[U]mpires have one more wrinkle to consider in the same spirit as bench warnings: Those times when ejecting a pitcher for his own good might actually serve to cool tensions from both sides of the field.”

Sometimes it seems as though almost nobody wants to address a concurrent issue that Harper’s former Nationals teammate Ryan Zimmerman does: baseball organisations seeking and finding pitchers who can throw supersonic pitches but haven’t learned to control them properly.

“You see these teams just call up these guys that throw 95 or 100 mph and the team doesn’t really care. They’re just trying to see if they have anything in them,” Zimmerman told the 106.7 radio station’s Sports Junkies podcast after his old mate and friend nearly lost his head Wednesday night.

A couple years ago, these guys would be in Double-A or Triple-A for another year trying to learn how to pitch but these teams just call them up to see if they can kinda hit lightning in a bottle. If not, they send them back down. They don’t care if they hit four guys on the other team. What does it matter to them? The [general manager] of the other team is not in the box, so he doesn’t care. It’s a different kind of game but it is what it is and that’s where we’re at.

You almost predict what those clubs want: floods of strikeouts. But Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven got floods of strikeouts (3,701 lifetime) and his money pitch was maybe the third most monstrously voluptuous curve ball yours truly has ever seen. (Numeros two-o and uno: Dwight Gooden, and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax.)

It’s bad enough that the three-batter relief minimum throttles managers from getting wild pitchers out of there before they do worse damage than turned out done to Harper and Grigorius Wednesday night. It’s worse when baseball organisations seem to believe pitching is purely a matter of who can throw the lamb chops faster and farther past the wolves.

“Hitting is timing,” Hall of Fame lefthander Warren Spahn once said. “Pitching is destroying timing.” That was then, this is now, and for once the Old School has it right. Today hitting may still be timing, for all the overstated obsession with launch angles and exit velocities, but pitching today often seems oriented on destroying batters instead of their timing.

In case you were curious, the prankish Spahn—whose money pitch was a screwball and who happened to be one, himself, especially allied to longtime Braves buddy Lew Burdette—averaged two hit batsmen a year.

That was also then: minor league legend Steve Dalkowski could throw a cruise missile past a fighter jet on Mach-plus cruising speed. But he couldn’t find the strike zone with a search party and bloodhounds half of the time. (The ill-fated Dalkowski never saw one inning’s major league action: he’d barely made the ’63 Orioles roster in spring training when he blew his elbow out during an exhibition game.)

This is today: If Zimmerman is right, today’s organisation wouldn’t care half as much for Dalkowski’s inability to find and keep the strike zone as for his ability to scare the opposition to death and back.

NBC Sports writer Matt Weyrich says there are some hard numbers supporting Zimmerman’s theory: In 2018, the Show set a new record with 1,922 pitches hitting batters. Then, in 2019, the Show broke that record by 62. The wild pitches also climbed, with the Show’s seven highest wild pitch totals “all recorded in the seven seasons from 2013-2019.” This year’s 291 wild pitches and 354 pitches hitting batters, Weyrich adds, threaten to set new league records yet again.

Remember the postgame exchange between fictitious Durham Bulls manager Skip Riggins and coach Larry Hockett about Dalkowski-inspired pitching prospect Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham?

Riggins: He walked eighteen.
Hockett: New. league. record.
Riggins: He struck out 18.
Hockett: Another new. league. record. In addition, he hit the sportswriters, the public-address announcer, the bull mascot— twice—also new. league. records. But, Joe—this guy’s got some serious shit.

In theaters and on DVD, that’s about ten laughs. In the real game, it’s as funny as a shave with a Mixmaster. “You’re in the big leagues,” Zimmerman told that podcast. “There’s kind of a thought that if you’re at this level, you should be able to control — especially if you’re throwing 97 mph.”

Did any rough stuff happen between the Phillies and the Cardinals on Thursday night, then? Well, yes, there was—briefly. And that was with neither Harper nor Grigorius playing, Girardi having added that both players would be re-examined when the team returned to Philadelphia today to open a weekend set with the Mets.

With the game tied three-all, and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Neris decided Harper didn’t speak for him when sending Schildt that pregame, give-peace-a-chance text.

Neris gave his own piece a chance at the expense of Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado—hitting him up and in and on the back of the shoulder on the only pitch of the plate appearance.

Would Girardi or any other Phillie care to expose just who whacked Neris with the stupid stick? The righthander resembled a bullying coward willing to endanger his own team for the sake of who the hell knew exactly what. He was lucky the benches didn’t clear after betraying the letter and intent behind Harper’s olive branch.

It wasn’t as though the next Cardinal batter was liable to blast a two-run homer to win it on the spot. Tyler O’Neill plays major league baseball in the first place because he’s a very plus outfielder. At the plate, calling him a spaghetti bat might be putting things politely. Don’t think Neris wasn’t aware of it when he did what four Phillies pitchers preceding him didn’t even think about doing.

He hit one of the Cardinals’ big sticks to take the easy out, striking O’Neill out on three pitches. Neris is lucky Schildt took the higher road likewise, applauding the Arenado hit as “old school baseball.”

Then another Phillie reliever, David Hale, threw a wild pitch past Cardinals shortstop Edmundo Sosa, a pitch catcher J.T. Realmuto might or might not have been able to block successfully considering its movement. It allowed O’Neill—who began the inning as the free cookie on second to open it, and took third when Cardinals catcher Andrew Knizner grounded out leading off—to score the winner in the bottom of the tenth.

Neris should count his blessings that it looks as though he won’t get a week’s detention.

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