Clean, legal, case closed

Manny Machado, Tommy Edman

Machado (left) checks on Edman after the Sunday drop slide that blew enough social media up Monday.

Manny Machado isn’t now and never has been a controversy-free baseball player. He’s one of those players who can trigger an uproar  without doing or saying a thing. Sometimes all he has to do is smile.

But it isn’t every day that a man to whom controversy seems as natural as playing third base kicks up a little storm for doing the right thing. Especially when it’s something fundamental he was taught very early in his career.

On Sunday, the Padres’s third baseman reached base in the fourth inning, when the Cardinals’ own third baseman Nolan Arenado committed a very rare (for him) throwing error. Then, Machado ran toward second on a Jake Cronenworth ground ball to Cardinals second baseman Tommy Edman.

Edman fielded the ball cleanly while still a few steps behind the proper basepath. Then he stepped into Machado’s path with thoughts about starting a double play. He got the force tag on Machado. At that moment, Machado dropped into an almost excuse-me, soft slide that still upended Edman to keep him from throwing the none-too-fast Cronenworth out at first.

You couldn’t blame Edman for looking about as thrilled as a dental patient after he recovered from the upending. But the first thing Machado did immediately after the slide was move to see whether Edman was injured on the play. (He wasn’t.)

Whether Machado went rogue yet again ran over social media and enough of the sports press well into Monday. That was after Cardinals starting pitcher Kwang Hyun Kim told reporters he thought Machado should have been called for interference, which would have made Cronenworth out at first. Kim also seemed surprised Cardinals manager Mike Schildt didn’t argue for a review to get the call.

It wouldn’t have done Schildt any good if he’d tried, and he probably knew it. The written rules give the baserunner the right of way on the proper basepath, and you can watch the play fifty times from fifty angles and see nothing indicating Machado interfered with Edman fielding the ball in the first place.

Machado was well prepared to execute such a play. His long-enough-time Orioles manager Buck Showalter taught him the play. “I’m still trying to figure out what the story is,” Showalter told The Athletic‘s Dennis Lin.

Showalter told Lin the play was routine business in the Yankee system from his years managing in that system and finally the Yankees themselves. If the runner executes the drop-slide, it breaks up double plays no matter how far you get caught before second base and with little damage otherwise. Showalter indicated to Lin that not only were players taught how to do it running the bases but infielders were taught to be prepared for such drop-slides.

“The first thing I did,” Padres manager Jayce Tingler told Lin, “was I gave him a high-five. I thought it was a play, honestly, that won the game.”

The Padres entered the bottom of the fourth in the hole 2-0. Machado’s reach on the Arenado error led the inning off. After the force out during which Machado kept Edman from turning the double play, Kim walked Tommy Pham and surrendered a bases-loading line single up the middle to Austin Nola—before walking two runs home back-to-back enabling the Padres to tie the game.

Genesis Cabrera relieved Kim and surrendered a sacrifice fly (Patrick Kivlehan) and an RBI single (Ivan Castillo) back to back before catching Trent Grisham looking at strike three for the side. The Cardinals got a run back when Paul Goldschmidt scored as Yadier Molina dialed Area Code 4-6-3 in the top of the sixth, but Grisham made the game 5-3 with a two-out RBI double in the bottom of the inning. The Padres bullpen made sure the game finished with that score.

Tingler may well have been right. Machado’s slide as Edman crossed right into his proper basepath just might have won the game for the Padres, or at least set up their best chance to win.

Kim had more or less cruised through the first three innings, shaking off only a two-out base hit in the third while otherwise striking out the side. If he was staggered by the Machado slide enough that he couldn’t believe his manager didn’t demand a review and an interference call, on a play for which no interference and no foul play was involved at all, maybe the Padres pounced from there on a pitcher who just might have taken himself out of of his own concentration zone.

Showalter asked aloud whether Machado gave the Padres the best chance to win, and whether it was a clean play? Then, he answered his own question. “Of course it did,” he told Lin. “Outs are precious, and the game, as much as home runs seem to be there, it’s still about ninety-foot increments—who can keep the other team from getting ninety feet and who can gain ninety feet by something offensively. It should be embraced. It’s a great, thinking man’s baseball play.”

According to Lin, Machado’s former Oriole teammate Adam Jones called the play a legal and intelligent play. Also according to Lin, Jones’s comment got a resounding agreement from an old shortstop-turned-coach-and-manager—a fellow named Larry Bowa, who wasn’t exactly renowned for subtlety or gentility as a player or a leader.

The old Bowa might even have thought Machado’s comparatively dainty slide showed Edman a little too much mercy. Compared to Bowa in his time, the typical hard-nosed player often resembled a marshmallow stick figure.

Machado has faced accusations of dirty play in the past. Even if Tingler himself says it’s become a tired narrative. But Sunday’s play reminded too many fans of the play they think destroyed Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia’s career back in 2017, the takeout slide at second that injured Pedroia at the back of his left knee. What they don’t remember is that that by itself didn’t put paid to Pedroia’s career.

The tenacious second baseman actually—and perhaps foolishly—managed to gut 105 games out in all 2017 and finished with a .369 on-base percentage plus six defensive runs saved above his league average at second base. But he could play only three games in 2018 and six in 2019, before sitting 2020’s pan-damn-ically mandate irregular season out and retiring three months ago.

“It’s funny,” Pedroia told NBC Sports Boston’s John Tomase after his retirement conference. “I remember when I got the first MRI after the play, a doctor said, ‘Hey, man, you could not only ruin the rest of your career but the rest of your life with this injury. You tore all the cartilage off on your medial compartment on your femur and your tibia. Your cleat just got stuck, and it’s a bad deal.’

“And I said, ‘Well, can I play’,” Pedroia continued. “And he said, ‘Yeah, you could try to. It’s going to go. When it goes, you’ll know.’ So I just remember everyone there saying, ‘Hey, we need you.’ So it was a no-brainer. If I had to do it all over again, it wouldn’t even be a question. Of course I would.”

In other words, Pedroia knew the risk of trying to continue playing despite the severity of the injury. We’ll never know for dead last certain whether some sort of knee surgery at the time instead of trying to continue despite that injury might have saved and enabled continuing his career.

About the play itself? In the immediate moment after the actual play, Pedroia himself told anyone who’d listen that he never once believed Machado intended that slide to be either dirty or injurious. Indeed—just as he’d do with Edman on Sunday—the first thing Machado did after coming to his feet was try to aid Pedroia. Machado also sent Pedroia a post-game text apology to Pedroia, who replied that he knew Machado wasn’t trying to injure him.

Without now mentioning Machado by name, Pedroia told Tomase, “Unfortunately, I just got caught in the wrong position and that was it. But I think I’m at peace with everything knowing that I did my best and the training staff and the doctors did everything we possibly could’ve to try to continue to play baseball.”

That effort earned Pedroia serious points in the guts-and-glory department. It also forced him in the end into the partial knee replacement last December that guaranteed he can never run again.

Machado was no more responsible for ending Pedroia’s career than Yankee infielder Gil McDougald was for ending onrushing Indians pitcher Herb Score’s in 1957. Score recovered from McDougald’s liner into his face, returned in due course, looked like his old self opening 1958, then blew his elbow out on a cold, wet night. He sat ten days, then tried foolishly to pitch through it, and by his own admission changed his motion to overcompensate for it “and ended up with some bad habits.”

Score hung on with the Indians until they traded him to the White Sox following the infamous Colavito-for-Kuenn deal in 1960. He didn’t regroup any better with the White Sox or in their minor league system, finally retiring to the Indians broadcast booth in 1964. It didn’t stop Cleveland from believing McDougald drilled a hole into Score’s career any more than the actualities stop Boston and elsewhere from believing Machado plowed a hole into Pedroia’s career.

But that was then, this was Sunday, and Lin would remind you that Nationals shortstop Trea Turner executed an almost exact match slide against the Mets, earlier this season,  though Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor actually stopped short of Turner and didn’t tumble over Turner onto the ground.

Nobody went boo or ballistic over that play, by the way.

“If [Machado] would’ve stopped and they threw to first and threw back to second and tagged him, nobody would’ve said a word,” Showalter told Lin. “If he had let him tag him softly up top, like most people do, nobody would’ve said a word. But because he tried to figure out a way to keep that from happening, I mean, it should be extolled.”

For all we know, too, there may be those willing to rag and bag Machado because the actual slide made him resemble a large sack of dog food falling nonchalantly and accidentally off a low warehouse shelf.

If Machado just stopped short like a good little boy and let that nice Edman consummate the double play he was “entitled” to consummate (some of the social media flappers can make you think that’s what they’re thinking), his critics would probably rag and bag him for not trying to bust up that double play by any means necessary. Hell if you do, hell if you don’t.

Salami on special at the Slam Diego Deli

Rookie Jake Cronenworth joined the Padres’ grand slam parade Saturday.

A spectre may be haunting major league baseball—the spectre of San Diego. The Padres, usually renowned for a checkered history, lots of ugly uniforms, a handsome ballpark where hitters usually go to die, and a seeming genius for watching as many as three top-of-the-line players depart for every one or two they could find. Rudely interrupted by a couple of pennants.

That was then and this is now: The Padres now wear uniforms that are passable, if unlikely to put them on the best-dressed men’s lists. They make the right headlines in the press and hash in the National League West and elsewhere. They also make hash out of the National League leader board, where you’ll find them as of this morning at the top for total bases, stolen bases, walks, slugging, OPS, and home runs.

Previous generations of baseball’s big bopping teams have earned colourful nicknames: The Bronx Bombers, the Pittsburgh Lumber Company, Harvey’s Wallbangers. To those add now Slam Diego. These Poundres don’t just hit home runs, they hit conversation pieces. Especially with the bases loaded. The Slam Diego Deli is the Show’s first to grind salami on special in four consecutive games.

When rookie shortstop Jake Cronenworth saw and raised center fielder Trent Grisham’s three homers in a Saturday burial of the Houston Astros by slamming Astros reliever Humberto Castellanos, it was the fifth San Diego slam in six games while they were at it.

The 13-2 win was also the Padres’s sixth straight win overall and raised their record in interleague play to 6-0 so far. These are not your grandfather’s, your father’s, or even your big brother’s Friar Ducks. Sitting, that is.There’s nothing like a not-so-little beatdown laid upon last year’s American League pennant winner to redeem a five-game losing streak that ended when the Poundres flattened the Texas Rangers 14-4 last Monday.

That just so happened to be the same game in which the Slam Diegans’s gigastar-in-the-making, Fernando Tatis, Jr., provoked this year’s first major debate over the Sacred Unwritten Rules—when he faced Juan Nicasio in the top of the eighth, with the bases loaded, one out, a 3-0 count, and a 10-3 Padres lead in Globe Life Hangar, and hit something too meaty to resist over the right field fence.

Baseball’s boring old farts screamed about Tatis’s lack of manners. Rangers manager Chris Woodward, who harrumphed after the game about how offensive Tatis was for daring to swing 3-0 late in the middle of a blowout, lifted Nicasio for Ian Gibaut, who threw right behind Manny Machado’s rump roast immediately to follow.

The problem was that, this time, most of baseball applauded Tatis and decided the SURs a) were patent nonsense and b) don’t cover when a hitter as good as Tatis is fed something Ray Charles could have hit for distance. Apparently, so did Commissioner Nero, suspending Gibaut three games.

The further problem, once Padres manager Jayce Tingler got over his own dismay at Tatis violating the SURs, is that the whole hoo-ha just put rocket fuel into the Padres at the plate. The following night, they could only muster a 6-4 win over the Rangers but Wil Myers joined the deli crew in the top of the first, with the bases loaded and two out, clearing the left center field fence and staking the Pads to an immediate 4-0 lead.

The night after that, back in Petco Park, the Padres and the Rangers wrestled to a tenth inning ted at two. After the Rangers snuck an unearned run home in the top of the tenth, Machado checked in with the bases loaded on the free cookie at second to start their bottom of the tenth, a dubious-enough sacrifice bunt (sorry, I still say you don’t give outs to the other guys, especially with a man in scoring position gifted you), and back-to-back walks.

Machado re-opened the Slam Diego Deli by hitting a full-count meatball over the left center field fence. The night after that, Eric Hosmer checked in with one out, the Padres in the hole 2-1, and the pads padded on two base hits and a walk. Hosmer nailed Rangers starter Kyle Gibson with a drive down the right field line and into the seats. The Padres needed every morsel of that salami even more this time; they had to build and then hold on for the 8-7 win.

When they beat the Astros 4-3 Friday night, there may have been some wags thinking the Padres were on the threshold of disaster. The deli stayed closed. The Padres didn’t even load the bases once against five Astros pitchers. Don’t tell us the magic was gone before we really had a fair shot at it sinking in at maximum depth.

Thank God for Cronenworth. Be so [fornicating] glad the Poundres have Cronenworth. In the bottom of a second inning that began with a 2-1 lead and already added five runs on a leadoff bomb (Myers), a three-run homer (Grisham), and an RBI single (Ty France), Cronenworth tore into a Castellanos fastball on 3-1 and tore it over the right field fence.

“It’s somebody different every single night stepping up,” Cronenworth said after the Saturday night massacre. “Grish has three home runs tonight, Manny hit a home run tonight, Wil [Myers] hit a home run tonight, [starting pitcher] Zach Davies had an incredible outing. It started with him shutting their offense down and getting us back in the dugout as quick as possible.”

Don’t ask about his turn behind the San Diego Deli counter, though. The bad news is that the kid has the boilerplate mastered: “Put a good swing on a good pitch. Just keep my approach up the middle. Just happened to put a good swing on it.” Thank you, Friar Obvious.

Institutionally, the Padres have a few reasons to thank the Astros. It was the Astros who got them into San Diego in the first place, after that lovely city by the harbour and the Pacific hosted the Pacific Coast League Padres for generations. (Including a local kid named Ted Williams playing his minor league ball there, in the era when the PCL was the a major league in everything but name.)

The National League’s second expansion intended for Montreal and Dallas to have new teams. The Astros’s founding owner, Judge Roy Hofheinz, banged a gavel and said, “Not so fast, buster.” Hofheinz would rather have blown the Astrodome to smithereens than sanctioned a rival team playing a hop, skip, and bronco-busting bull’s jump up the road from (as then-Yankee first baseman Joe Pepitone called it) the world’s biggest hair dryer.

So the National League’s lords relented and, with no little help from Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley—who needed a place to dump his general manager Buzzie Bavasi, when O’Malley son and heir Peter was ready to graduate to the Dodgers’ front office—what was meant for Dallas ended up by the southern California seas.

Once upon a time, another Padres owner, Ray Kroc (McDonald’s mastermind and magnate), took to his own public address system to commiserate with fans over “the stupidest baseball playing I’ve ever seen.” Who the hell needs a Big Mac when you’re running the National League’s least-expected delicatessen lately?