Headhunters ball

Of course our guy didn’t throw at your guy’s attic on purpose. And of course we’ll take that polar beach club off your hands for twice the market value!

A little Saturday rough stuff between the Chicago Cubs and the Cincinnati Reds may or may not be surprising. But is it all that surprising that Angel Hernandez’s umpiring crew sent it near nuclear? Not Hernandez himself, for a change, but still.

The Cubs and the Reds played a doubleheader in Great American Ballpark. Thanks to his performance in the Cubs’ first-game win (3-0), Anthony Rizzo wasn’t exactly the Reds’ favourite person on the day. Neither was Cubs starting pitcher Yu Darvish, who was so effective he could (and did) drop his glove while delivering and still throw a strike.

First, Rizzo wrestled Reds starter Trevor Bauer to a ninth pitch and drilled it down the right field line and out of sight in the top of the third. Then, in the top of the sixth, Rizzo made shorter work of Bauer by hitting a fourth-pitch 1-2 service deeper into the right field seats.

But in the top of the nightcap’s fourth, rookie Cincinnati relief pitcher Tejay Antone greeted Rizzo leading off with a pitch straight over Rizzo’s head. Rookie though he may be, Antone had all the right moves at the ready, looking at his pitching hand immediately as he turned to his right.

Of course the ball just slipped away off course against the guy who took the Reds deep twice in the first game. And of course you can have that Antarctican beach club for twice the market value. Rizzo’s reputation for plate crowding doesn’t fly here, either. If you’re going to push a batter back off the plate, you’re going to throw inside and tight, not upstairs above the attic.

“We’ve played against the Reds a long time and they do like to move my feet,” Rizzo told reporters after Cubs relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel wild-pitched the winning Reds run home in the bottom of the seventh.

It’s just part of their reports–it’s been for years. I don’t think any pitcher would purposefully throw at someone’s head. I give the benefit of the doubt to every pitcher, especially Antone. He’s a rookie. He’s been throwing really well. The pitch inside was definitely for a purpose. It’s just, it’s at the head and that’s scary stuff.

No sale. Both dugouts barked. Hernandez’s ump crew confabbed as Antone stepped into his errant-hand routine around the mound. Home plate umpire Nic Lentz handed warnings to both sides. Cubs manager David Ross, who wouldn’t have paid a wooden nickel for the pitch-slipping plea, was distinctly unamused.

Ross came out of his dugout at first, returned, then came back out after Lentz handed the warnings down. “I thought our dugout got pretty animated and the umpires stepped in and issued warnings, which I didn’t understand,” Grandpa Rossy told reporters later. “We hadn’t done anything from our perspective. A young man tried to take things into his own hands and send a message, and then it kind of escaped from there.”

With the Cubs dugout still bristling over Antone’s attic pitch to Rizzo, not to mention Antone still bristling quietly over having exchanged a few “grunts” with the Cubs previously, Ross and his pitching/catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello were ejected. It’s the first ejection in Ross’s managerial career. Welcome to Angel’s Hell, Gramps. You’re not supposed to say anything but “three bags full, sir” to the crew of the legend in his own mind.

Then the Reds got a taste of both theirs and Hernandez’s own medicine in the bottom of the fourth. Cubs reliever Adbert Adzolay zipped Reds center fielder Shogo Akiyama up, in, and tight. You’d have had to be a U.S. postmaster general not to know that Adzolay wanted to send the Reds a little return message about going upstairs against the guy who took you downtown twice in the first game.

That prompted veteran Reds leader and designated hitter for the game Joey Votto to bark at the Cubs, Kyle Schwarber in particular. Cincinnati skipper David Bell returned to the field for another conversation with the umps, during which Rizzo hollered at him from first base, which lured Votto and Reds outfielder Jesse Winker out to have it out with Rizzo.

First base umpire Dan Bellino tried and failed to convince Votto and Winker to knock it the hell off, then he invited both to kindly remove themselves from the game, at which point—pandemic protocols be damned—both benches and bullpens emptied to the field, although nobody even thought about throwing a punch.

“I went over to get an explanation for what happened,” Bell told reporters afterward. “And then I believe Anthony Rizzo started walking towards me and yelling at me,” Bell said. “I don’t know what he was saying, it didn’t really matter to me. And at that point, a couple of our players jumped over the railing and the umpire just started throwing everybody out of the game. Not everybody, but Jesse Winker, Joey Votto and myself.”

“Having each other’s backs and the Reds and all their guys and David Bell are going to have each other’s backs and we’re going to have our backs,” said Rizzo, who speaks fondly of Bell otherwise from Bell’s days as a Cubs infield coach. “That’s what happens when you’re competing anytime through baseball, but especially this year when it’s all heightened and you can hear every little thing.”

The Twitterverse erupted with a round of brickbats against Hernandez as the leader of the crew, but in absolute fairness this was one time when Hernandez himself didn’t jump the first bullet train to make himself the object of everyone’s attention. That’s about as far as absolute fairness should go, thanks to a time-honoured precept that when you lead you take responsibility for what your subordinates do, for better or worse.

Including making the headhunters captured by the game the story of the day, instead of Darvish’s virtuosity on the mound in the first game. Or even the hapless and once-formidable Kimbrel’s ninth-inning nightcap disaster, when he was brought in to try saving a 5-4 Cubs lead and should-have-been win. Oops.

He walked Reds catcher Curt Casali on 3-1 to open the bottom of the ninth. He struck Votto’s successor Mark Payton out, but he wild-pitched Casali’s pinch runner Freddy Galvis to second before walking Nicholas Castellanos. Winker’s successor Aristedes Aquino singled Galvis home, then Kimbrel wild-pitched Castellanos and Aquino to third and second, respectively, before walking Eugenio Suarez.

The good news: Cardiac Kimbrel struck Mike Moustakas and Jose Garcia swinging, back to back, Garcia especially on one of the filthiest curve balls Kimbrel’s thrown in recent times. The bad news: That strikeout pitch escaped not just Garcia’s bat but one and all around and behind the plate, enabling Castellanos to score the Reds’ winning run.

Too-vivid reminders of how Kimbrel, formerly one of the most automatic closers in the Show, kept the crash carts on red alert during the 2018 Boston Red Sox’s postseason run even when credited with saves. The poor man threw four first-pitch strikes out of his six batters but only three of his eleven total strikes were called and his earned run average now matched a ten-dollar bill.

“We’re behind him every single day,” Rizzo said of Kimbrel. “Every time he comes to the mound, we’re behind him and have full confidence in him. He’s Craig Kimbrel. He has his resume for a reason.” That door swings both ways, unfortunately.

Funeral to frat party and back in a Wrigley blink

2019-09-19 MattCarpenter

Matt Carpenter runs out the bomb that proved the difference maker in the tenth Thursday.

You knew it was just round one of total weekend war when a throw to first to catch Kolten Wong in the act was challenged, the safe call upheld, and the Wrigley Field boos rained louder than a heavy mental concert Thursday night. In the top of the first.

And, as Cubs starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks and catcher Willson Contreras ended the half inning with a strike-’em-out (Paul Goldschmidt)/throw-’em-out (Wong) double play,  the cheering from the Confines would have drowned the earlier booing out if both could have happened at once.

Then, for the following seven innings, Wrigley Field resembled a funeral home with Cardinals starting pitcher Jack Flaherty the chief undertaker. Until the Cubs tied things at four in the bottom of the ninth, turned the funeral home into a frat party and sent it to extra innings.

With Craig Kimbrel—returning from elbow inflammation, not having pitched since the beginning of the month—taking the mound for the top of the tenth. Cardiac Craig, about whom it was written snidely that every time he nailed a postseason save for last season’s Red Sox his high-wire act still made it feel like losing.

He struck out former Cub Dexter Fowler on a full count. Then Matt Carpenter—who’d lost his third base job to rookie Tommy Edman, who came into the game late when it looked like the Cardinals had it in the bank, and who hadn’t gone long since late August—hit Kimbrel’s first pitch over the center field wall. That’s what a quick trip back to the minors to fix your swing can do for you.

It also knocked Wrigley back into funeral mode for the moment, until Kimbrel settled enough to get rid of Goldschmidt and Steve Cishek came in to get rid of Marcell Ozuna and get the Cubs one more chance. Which Giovanny Gallegos—the guy the Cardinals surrendered Luke Voit to the Yankees to obtain—had no intention of giving them in his first-ever Cardinals save situation.

Late game Cub insertions Ian Happ (fly out to center) and David Bote (swinging strikeout) were dispatched almost in a blink. And Nicholas Castellanos, the Cubs’ midseason acquisition from the Tigers, who’d been nothing but solid and beyond for the Cubs since, flied out to center to end it.

The 5-4 win pushed the Cubs four behind the Cardinals in the National League Central and one behind the Brewers for the league’s second wild card, the Brewers having flattened the Padres earlier in the day. The Cubs have to win a mere three straight against the Cardinals this weekend to keep pace with them and maybe re-claim their second card grip.

Flaherty’s evening ended after a 1-2-3 bottom of the eighth, 118 pitches, eight strikeouts, a lone walk, three hits overall, and one rudely-interrupting home run, keeping the Cubs otherwise unbalanced with a blend of breakers, changeups, and fastballs a barista would have envied for its smooth richness.

He walked off the mound for the final time of the game so collected he could have been forgiven for saying, quietly, “Well, I guess I’d better be shoveling off.” Even if he knows about as much about the old friendly radio undertaker Digger O’Dell, whose catch phrase it was, as this year’s American League East-and-100 game-winning Yankees know about avoiding the injured list.

And he got a nice respectful hand from even enough Cub fans and he’d earned every finger of it. Even that was just respectful, low-keyed applause and cheering. The real noise came after the Cardinals brought in former starter Carlos Martinez to open the bottom of the ninth, and Martinez opened with a walk to Nicholas Castellanos before Kris Bryant, who’d been kept quiet by Flaherty all night, smacked a single up the pipe.

With Kyle Schwarber and his 37 home runs so far checking in at the plate with the potential tying run. With Martinez falling behind to him 3-0 before striking him out, but with Ben Zobrist doubling home Castellanos, putting the tying runs into perfect position, and with Javier Baez—whose thumb is still balky but who can still run swiftly—pinch running for Zobrist.

It took eight and a half for Wrigley to come back to life. And when Contreras flicked a squirty grounder up the short third base line with Bryant tearing home as if it was supposed to be an unintentionally intentional suicide squeeze, only with all hands safe and first and third, the Confines became as unconfined as you imagine when the Cubs re-awaken from the dead.

Then Cardinals manager Mike Schildt brought in Andrew Miller, whose formidability as an Indian the Cubs remembered only too well from 2016, but who’s been worn down since by health issues stemming from his former bullpen overwork, to face the lefthanded Jason Heyward. Heyward smashed a grounder to second that pushed home Baez to tie things at four.

You got the idea early that even with the Flaherty factor hitting was going to be a challenge thanks to the notorious Wrigley winds, when Nicholas Castellanos skied one that might have flown out elsewhere but hung up for a right field catch in the first, and Jason Heyward hit a cannon shot liner that died a shuttlecock into Wong’s glove playing second ending the second.

And you also got the idea early and often that both sides weren’t exactly going to be in a big hurry to blow plate umpire Bill Welke to a steak dinner any time soon. Welke called so many pitches strikes that didn’t even graze the floor or the outside edges of the zone it’s a wonder neither Cardinal nor Cub decided to serenade him whistling the ancient television theme from The Outer Limits.

But you also knew the delight Cub Country took in Anthony Rizzo deciding to test his recently-sprained ankle by playing first base would be matched only by a sense that it would do a bigger favour to the Cardinals. And in the top of the third, it was.

Flaherty batted with first and second with Rizzo ambling down the line, a la Keith Hernandez, slowly but surely, and practically in front of the mound, aiming as has become a Cubs mainstay to choke off the bunt even if it went near the third base line. Flaherty dropped the bunt, all right. Right up the short third base line. And on his still-balky wheel Rizzo couldn’t get the ball in time to keep the bases from loading.

The pillows stayed stuffed long enough for Dexter Fowler to dial Area Code 4-6-3 with Edman (a leadoff walk) scoring on the play. And Rizzo atoned for his ankle’s betrayal in the bottom of the inning, sending Flaherty’s first pitch to him the other way into the left center field bleachers to tie things at one. Smartly, Rizzo he didn’t run it out any faster than he absolutely had to or could.

The tie held up long enough for Edman to open the top of the fifth with a triple into the right field corner and for Harrison Bader, who’s been as much a struggler at the plate as reliable in the outfield this season, to smack a single up the pipe to break the tie.

The Cardinals got a scare when Wong had to leave the game after ending the top of the fifth with a ground out to first. He fumed over leaving the game and the Cardinals may have fumed quietly with him, since he’s their best player this season by wins above replacement-level.

Then they sent Carpenter out to play third and moved Edman to second. And Flaherty went back to work as though nothing short of an undetected tornado could interrupt his quiet pleasure in his work. You might feel that kind of quiet surety, too, if you took the fifth-best post All-Star break earned run average (1.07) of all time out to the mound to start your evening’s work of play.

Flaherty was so composed and efficient that the Cardinals didn’t even think about getting a reliever up until Martinez got up to throw in the bottom of the eighth, after Flaherty reached 108 pitches on the night. Don’t even think about it: Flaherty doesn’t look like a pure hard, grunting, thrusting thrower; he relies on mechanical soundness to provide the fastball’s power and the command of the breakers.

He nailed the Cubs’ impressive rookie call-up Kyle Hoerner (eleven runs batted in in his first ten games worth of impressive) on a called third strike that looked under and not on the floor, and while Hoerner objected mildly to the call Flaherty simply walked around the mound and went back to work.

Then he struck out his counterpart Hendricks swinging, and Hendricks to that point was working with equivalent composure, not letting the quirky Wrigley elements get as far into his head as a two-run deficit ordinarily might, though he engaged a long yet civilised-appearing discussion with Welke after that swishout before returning to the mound.

He was probably a little more miffed when Goldsmidt opened the St. Louis sixth with a sharp double down the left field line. The Cardinals must have wondered about his ump conversation when Ozuna was rung up on a pitch that didn’t even graze the outer strike zone before Hendricks nicked Paul DeJong on a runaway inside pitch.

But Yadier Molina, the Cardinals’ wise old man behind the plate, lined a single to left that Schwarber played on the carom off the heel of his glove before throwing home. Goldschmidt waved home from second should have been a Deadbird, except that he eluded Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, abetted by Contreras inside the baseline seemingly unable to get the handle on the tag.

Which ended Hendricks’s evening and gave the Cubs more reason to be miffed, when Bader stroked a liner to left center off Hendricks’s relief Rowan Wick, right after Wick turned Edman aside on a swinging strikeout. Then Schwarber opened the bottom of the seventh with a single up the pipe. And Flaherty in a momentary lapse of soundness wild pitched Schwarber to second while working to Ben Zobrist, before Zobrist grounded to second to push Schwarber to third.

And the Cubs’ basepath issues reared up and bit them flush on the fanny, when Contreras bounced one right back to Flaherty and Flaherty bagged the Schwarbinator in a 1-2-5-6 rundown out before Heyward grounded out for the side.

The Cardinals didn’t really look all that much better going 4-14 with men in scoring position in the first seven innings, but what matters is how you make it count when you do it and how you hang in there when the other guys decide it’s party time at the ninth hour. And Carpenter spoiled the party in the top of the tenth.

Leaving the Cubs to resist the temptation toward counting the days and accept the temptation to counting the ways they might keep both feet from their seasonal graves. They’d rather not be shoveling off just yet.

Lord, have mercy—no mercy rule

2019-08-17 MikeFord

Mike Ford had a ball pitching Thursday night—but his Yankee manager was anything but amused over using a position player to pitch.

Baseball Reference defines a blowout as a game won by five runs or more, which seems a particularly liberal way to define it. By that measurement, though, the Yankees—nestling quite nicely atop the American League East with a season-high ten-and-a-half-game advantage—are 20-11 in blowouts this season.

If  you define a blowout as a game won by a larger margin than five, say eight runs or more, the Yankees have won four such games and lost four such games this year. The latest of those: the 19-5 destruction laid upon them by the American League Central-contending Indians Thursday night.

By Baseball Reference‘s definition, the Indians are 22-16 in blowouts this year. But defining a blowout as an eight-run difference, the Tribe is 4-3. And the Yankees recovered nicely enough from the 19-5 beatdown to beat the Indians 3-2 Friday night.

Yankee manager Aaron Boone is still not amused over Thursday night’s thrashing. Or, what it compelled him to do the better to spare his actual bullpen in a lost cause.

He sent one of his non-pitchers, rookie first baseman/designated hitter Mike Ford, assuredly no relation to a certain Hall of Fame Yankee pitcher, for the final two innings of the massacre.

Rest assured, Boone wasn’t exactly thrilled that the Indians battered Ford for five runs in three consecutive plate appearances in the top of the eighth, on an RBI infield hit, a three-run homer, and a solo homer.

Rest assured further that Boone probably doesn’t want you to remind him that Ford somehow retired the Indians in order in the top of the ninth, half an inning after Gleyber Torres hit a one-out solo home run to close the Yankee deficit to a mere fourteen runs. Or that Ford isn’t the first and probably won’t be the last, rookie or otherwise, to take one for the team on the hill where he doesn’t normally work.

But rest assured, too, that Ford had far more fun on the mound than his skipper had having to put him there. Ford had a blast, even if he did get blasted in the eighth. Boone by comparison almost had kittens.

That blowout began the same weekend during which the Little League World Series will be played. Little League Baseball features a mercy rule: a six-inning game ends when one team leads by ten or more after four innings, or fifteen or more after three innings. Boone would kinda sorta like to see the Show implement a comparable rule.

“If you get to this point after seven innings or whatever,” Boone told a news conference Friday, “there might be something to that, some merit to that and worth exploring. Because it’s not fun to have to put in a position player in that kind of situation.”

Try asking the position player himself. Ask Pablo Sandoval how much fun it wasn’t to put him in that situation against the Reds in May. With his Giants on the wrong end of what finished as a 12-4 blowout, Kung Fu Panda ran, hit, and pitched his way into the record book.

Sandoval stole third in the third and hit a three-run homer in the sixth. With the game too lost a cause for Giants manager Bruce Bochy to even think about kidding himself, he let Sandoval pitch the eighth. And he didn’t get murdered, either.

Kung Fu Pitcher plunked his first batter, got a fly out, and then lured an Area Code 6-4-3 for the side. He faced three hitters, got three outs, and didn’t let one Red cross the plate against him. The fact that he resembled a Venezuelan Jumbo Brown only heightened the entertainment value.

The fact that he became the second Giant ever to steal a base, hit a home run, and pitch a shutout inning in the same game—Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson did it in 1905; that he was a pitcher and threw a complete game shutout at the Reds seems a mere technicality—was gravy.

But the entertainment value sometimes works the other way, too. On Thursday night the Mets in Atlanta started blowing out the Braves early and often enough to have a 10-3 lead after seven innings. Think of the fun the Braves would have missed, never mind the aggravation the Mets and their faithful would have missed, if the Braves could have evoked the kind of mercy rule Boone kinda sorta wants to see.

Think of the optics, too, in a pair of division leaders invoking mercy rules when they’re on the wrong end of an occasional big blowout. Try to imagine the great white shark telling the bluefish to pick on someone his own size.

As I write the Yankees and the National League West-leading Dodgers share baseball’s best record thus far, 84-42. Baseball Reference‘s blowout definition has the Dodgers with a 33-10 blowout record this year. My less liberal blowout definition shows the Dodgers with a 5-4 blowout record.

For the sound enough reason that managers don’t want to waste their bullpens in apparent lost causes, you won’t see position players on the mound unless their teams look to be getting blown out big time. A five-run deficit isn’t as likely to prompt a manager to reach for his bench to pitch; an eleven-run deficit is something else entirely.

One fine day last year, the Cubs faced a fourteen-run deficit in the sixth inning against the Cardinals. So manager Joe Maddon, unwilling to subject Randy Rosario, Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson, Pedro (Razor) Strop, or Carl Edwards to any further misuse or abuse in an apparent lost cause, turned to three position players—Tommy LaStella, Victor Caratini, and Ian Happ—to just get them through to live to play another day.

The good news: Happ pitched a scoreless ninth with only one hit off him. The bad news: Before that, LaStella got the final out of the top of the sixth but surrendered a leadoff homer in the seventh before pitching scoreless the rest of the inning. And Caratini, a catcher by trade who knows a little something about pitching, shook off a leadoff single to get two swift ground outs before surrendering a two-run homer and then retiring the side.

There’s no record of Maddon calling for anything resembling a mercy rule.

Nor was there one known to have come from Mariners manager Scott Servais last month, when the Angels—playing their first home game since the unexpected death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs in Texas—not only threw a combined no-hitter at the Mariners but blew them out, 11-0, in a game so emotional all of baseball cast their eyes upon Angel Stadium and nobody accused the Angels of being bullies.

Some position players itch for the chance to pitch even once, to even one hitter. The Cubs’ All-Star third baseman Anthony Rizzo was such a player. He’d only hankered to pitch to even one major league hitter his entire career when, on the wrong end of a 7-1 loss, last 23 July, Maddon granted his wish.

Caratini started pitching the top of that ninth, surrendering a leadoff single and luring a double play. Then Maddon sent Rizzo to the mound. To pitch to Diamondbacks relief pitcher Jorge de la Rosa. The count actually went to 2-2 despite the slop-tossing Rizzo, before Rizzo threw de la Rosa something that approximated Rip Sewell’s once-famous eephus pitch, and de la Rosa flied out to center.

Despite the likelihood of the Cubs finishing the loss they started, Wrigley Field went nutshit the moment de la Rosa’s fly landed in center fielder Happ’s glove and Rizzo began walking off the mound with an even bigger boyish grin on his phiz than he normally flashes in moments of joy.

In 2016, a Cub catcher named David Ross, on the threshold of retirement after a fine career, made up for an error in Game Seven of the World Series by hitting one over the center field fence an inning later. It was the final major league hit and homer in his final major league at-bat for a man whose first major league home run was hit against a position player in a blowout. Grandpa Rossy may be the only major league player to hold that distinction.

On 20 September 2002, rookie Ross’s Dodgers entered the top of the ninth blowing the Diamondbacks out 18-0. Ross took over for Paul Lo Duca behind the plate in the seventh and came up to bat in the ninth. Diamondbacks first baseman Mark Grace, who wasn’t in the starting lineup, volunteered to take one for the team and manager Bob Brenly assented.

With two unexpected fly outs to open that inning, Ross checked in at the plate against Grace. He hit Grace’s first float ball over the left field fence. “His first major league home run, and he hits it off Mark Grace,” Grace cracked after the game ended 19-1, “I feel sorry for that kid.”

What was then known as Bank One Ballpark shook with unexpected amusement over the sight of Grace on the mound. He got big laughs on both sides of the field and from the stands when, at one point, pitching from the stretch, he performed a dead-on impersonation of veteran reliever Mike Fetters, a portly fellow with the countenance of a grizzly bear suffering indigestion when taking a sign from his catcher.

The crowd didn’t even seem to mind one bit that Ross piled onto that severe a blowout with a shot into the seats.

“Position player pitching opportunities raise the likelihood for weird baseball stuff,” wrote MLB.com’s Jake Mintz, “without significantly reducing the potential for close and competitive game action.”

Position players also aren’t likely to even think about busting moves on the mound such as trying to throw ungodly fastballs or big sweeping curve balls. They know how to stay within their selves and their limitations. Boone may be admirable to worry about injuries, but position players on the mound are actually brainier than that.

If you’re looking to make and keep baseball fun again, well, who says it isn’t fun to see the big boys humbled by a real blowout now and then? Who says it isn’t fun to see even Yankee position players having to take one for the team now and then?

Apparently, Boone isn’t amused. There are times you’d think the greatest comedians in history couldn’t amuse the Yankees. Let a Yankee position player take the mound on the wrong end of a blowout and actually have a little mad fun with it, and don’t be shocked if he’s fined for conduct unbecoming a Yankee, the poor guy.

Let’s not let those sourpusses from the south Bronx spoil our fun. Lord have mercy, the Show doesn’t need a mercy rule. It needs more fun potential.