When sucking it up sucks

Jack Flaherty

If you’re ailing, speak up. You might save yourself some worse injury grief—even immediately.

The one pitcher the Cardinals could not afford to lose, especially missing two other key starting pitchers, is lost to them now. For who knows how long. It raises a dilemna almost as old as baseball itself: Who’s responsible for knowing or revealing when a player, any player, is injured enough to remove him before further damage is done?

Jack Flaherty admitted he started feeling tight in his side while pitching in the bottom of the fifth in his hometown Dodger Stadium Monday evening. But his turn in the batting order was due up in the top of the sixth and—right after Justin Williams led off with a home run to cut the Dodger lead to 2-1—he went out to the plate.

Flaherty swung on 0-1 at an outer-edge service from Dodger righthander Trevor Bauer, foul ticked it, and grimaced noticeably during the swing before hopping around the plate area in discomfort. He remained at the plate to finish the turn, taking a low ball one and then a called strike three. Then Cardinals manager Mike Shildt removed him from the game.

Now Flaherty’s on the ten-day injured list with a no-doubt oblique strain, and the Cardinals expect him to miss more time than that. With fellow key starters Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson already on the list—and baseball suffering quite the injury epidemic already this season—this is exactly what the Cardinals don’t need.

The question before the house—provoked in part by a social media debate into which I fell after noting Flaherty gone to the ten-day injured list Tuesday but likely to be out longer—is this: Should Shildt have been aware his man was ailing and either a) pinch-hit for him right off the bat in the sixth; or, b) removed him at once following the fateful swing to let another hitter finish the turn?

You might think the manager’s job includes awareness of his pitcher’s condition in the moment. Sometimes that awareness causes managers unwarranted grief, as Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash can tell you from Game Six of last year’s World Series. But often as not that awareness does the manager a big favour when he has all his other marbles in the right place.

Should Shildt himself have noticed Flaherty feeling tight in the bottom of the fifth? Open to debate. Should he have seen Flaherty in obvious discomfort swinging on that foul tick and pulled him on the spot for a pinch swinger to finish the plate appearance? Open to debate likewise.

It’s not unprecedented for a batter to be pulled for assorted reasons during a plate appearance and for a pinch hitter to finish the turn. But there’s a missing link between the fifth and the sixth: Flaherty himself, and whether he thought to speak up and admit he wasn’t feeling quite right.

The Cardinals’ most valuable pitcher probably had no business at the plate or staying in the game to get there in the first place. If last year’s universal designated hitter had been made permanent from this year forward, as it most assuredly should have been, Flaherty wouldn’t have even had to worry about checking in at the plate.

Maybe in that instance, the tightness he felt in the fifth would have eased up with a half-inning off for good behaviour and allowed him to pitch one more inning—this time, with a one-run lead. Maybe.

Shildt had an option on his bench if he wanted it, lefthanded swinger Matt Carpenter. Carpenter hasn’t been the hitter he once was for about three seasons, now, but he would have been a hitter at all. He’s not historically the most dangerous man at the plate with two strikes, but he does have ninety hits including 23 home runs lifetime when hitting with two strikes on him.

With the bases empty, nobody out, and the Cardinals back to within a run of the Dodgers after Williams’s leadoff blast, do you really want a pitcher—a breed that’s hitting a whopping .109 with a glandular .146 on-base percentage and a swollen .141 slugging percentage—at the plate to start turning a one-run deficit into a tie game at minimum? (Sit down and shut up, Old Fart Contingency.)

No, you wouldn’t, if you could help it. Flaherty himself is no big bopper at the plate. Not hitting .185 this season, he isn’t.

Talking during a post-game press conference, Flaherty admitted he doesn’t like coming out of games on his own volition if he can help it. Bulldogging pitchers earn plenty of gold stars. But they like other players also bulldog themselves into bigger trouble when they don’t give their bodies the benefit of the doubt.

The injury you try playing or pitching through today can and too often does turn into the one that knocks you out for a lot longer than you’d like. Depending on the time of the season, it also might help cost your team a postseason shot. With twelve players on the IL before Flaherty joined them, and a bullpen faltering (and overtaxed) too often already, the Cardinals could afford to have him among the missing about as much as a cobra can afford dinner, dancing, and a hotel reservation with a mongoose.

Even in today’s baseball there remains a cultural dilemna. Speak up when you’re hurting, there’ll still be those who look at you as a softie, maybe whisper thus half behind your back. Clam up when you’re hurting, they’ll call you a bulldog now but curse the day you were born when you’ve been disabled awhile with a far more severe problem and they find themselves in the pennant race’s rear view mirrors.

The old school managers weren’t always the most empathetic lot when it came to injuries, either. Maybe none was more notorious than Leo Durocher, whose problems blowing the 1969 National League East title including demanding his Cubs speak up when ailing—then denouncing them as “quitters” whenever they did speak up.

When Fred Hutchinson managed the Reds before his death of cancer in 1964, he once lifted his ace-in-the-making Jim Maloney—despite Maloney working on a potential no-hitter—beause he spotted Maloney in forearm discomfort. “When you have an arm like that,” Hutch told reporters post-game, “you don’t take chances.”

His successors Dick Sisler and especially Dave Bristol treated injuries as mortal sins, especially involving pitchers. “If he can just get the ball to the plate, he’s not hurting,” Bristol was once quoted as saying. Hutchinson was a former pitcher who knew better. Bristol was a former minor league infielder who pitched now and then, and his brains went to sleep on him. Maloney developed rest-of-career shoulder trouble after Hutchinson was gone and a concurrent unfair reputation as a crybaby when he did speak out now and then about his continuously barking shoulder.

Remember when another former Reds pitcher, reliever Rob Dibble, snarked his way out of a Nationals broadcasting job for zapping young Stephen Strasburg coming out of a game with what seemed forearm issues at the moment? “Suck it up, kid. This is your profession,” Dibble huffed. “You chose to be a baseball player. You can’t have the cavalry come in and save your butt every time you feel a little stiff shoulder, sore elbow . . . stop crying, go out there and pitch. Period.”

Turned out Strasburg had more than just a forearm issue—he faced Tommy John surgery. He’s had injury issues throughout his career; until last year, he pitched damn well when healthy. Including when he stood as the 2019 World Series MVP. Dibble should have known even better than Hutchinson actually did—he’d missed the entire 1994 season after shoulder surgery and was gone within two years. Suck it up, kid.

Sandy Koufax sucked it up in 1965-66, after learning his pitching elbow was arthritic. He’d already gone from no great shakes through 1960 to off the charts from 1961-64. In 65-66, he went from off the charts to the tenth dimension aided by a medical regimen that could have killed him if the workload (699 innings over those two seasons) didn’t.

Then—gone. Koufax decided sucking it up, even to win two of his three Cy Young Awards, back-to-back pennants, and a World Series, wasn’t worth living what he feared would be a compromised life. Good for him. It ensured his baseball immortality. And, it let him make a liar out of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the author’s maxim about the lack of second acts in American life.

(It also spared us the sight of a Hall of Famer in decline, letting Koufax leave at 30 frozen forever as a young lancer who turned plate appearances into battles against the unarmed.)

By the way, Shildt eventually did call upon Carpenter to pinch hit Monday, an inning later. Except that Dodger manager Dave Roberts promptly lifted Bauer and compelled Shildt to pull Carpenter back, when Roberts brought in lefthander Victor Gonzalez, in favour of righthanded hitting Lane Thomas. Gonzalez struck Thomas out for the side.

An inning earlier, perhaps Roberts would have let Bauer work his way through. As it was, after Flaherty finished his standing plate appearance before leaving the game entirely, Tommy Edman reached on an infield throwing error and Dylan Carlson hit one over the center field fence to give the Cardinals their only lead of the game.

Maybe if Carpenter had pinch hit to finish Flaherty’s plate appearance, he might have tagged a hit or reached otherwise (he’s walked fourteen times this year and still has a good enough eye at the plate to keep doing it) and instead enabled a 4-2 score after five and a half inning. (The Cardinals went on to lose, 9-4.)

From every account and appearance, Shildt is not an insensitive man. He’s had his moments of snark and foolishness, but they’ve been few enough so far. Right now, he’s in a pennant race in which he’d love to stay all the way. He can’t afford to let his wounded stay quiet before they go from ailing to disaster.

Unless you believe as I do that the universal DH is an idea whose permanent time is overdue enough, Flaherty didn’t get injured doing something he shouldn’t have been doing. He got hurt on the job doing his job. As one Twitter respondent said to me, it sucks that he got hurt but that’s part of the game.

Indeed. Not just to pitchers, either: Fernando Tatis, Jr. took an early exit in the sixth Tuesday night when he felt tightness in the same area, too. The Padres are keeping him day-by-day to be safe. Young as he is, Tatis probably knows any compulsion to suck it up risks making things more painful.

If Flaherty felt compelled to keep quiet about his side tightness after the bottom of the fifth Monday, Shildt might consider talking to him and the rest of his players. He could tell them it does themselves or the club no good to stay quiet when hurting.

“Talk up and sit down now, rather than hit disaster down the stretch. You’re not less of a man for being injured, but you’d be less of a man if it went from bad enough to worse.” That’s what Shildt could and should tell his Cardinals. That’s what Jayce Tingler might want to tell his Padres, too. That’s what any manager should want to tell his team.

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