Friday, August 8, 2014

In Arizona, If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Drill ‘Em

By Jeff Kallman

As of this writing I'm still waiting for baseball government to hand down discipline over last weekend's nonsense between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Pittsburgh Pirates. I can't help thinking I'm going to have a long wait.

The Diamondbacks seem seem far more interested in retribution and frontier justice than in winning baseball games. The Pirates' pitching philosophy that the strike zone doesn't range from the middle of the plate outward seems to offend even reluctant defenders of the Diamondbacks' vigilantism.

Last weekend, when Paul Goldschmidt got hit inadvertently by a tight inside ninth-inning pitch, causing a season-ending fracture, and Andrew McCutchen got drilled in ninth-inning retaliation the following night, the Diamondbacks' unapologetic eye-for-an-eye philosophy had most of even their most stubborn fans beginning to wonder aloud whether their own team was getting away with murder.

Nobody can say we weren't warned that the Diamondbacks' policy was going to get worse and more surreal before it got better. And this struggling team, whose season is lost, whose general manager made ostentatious off-season pronouncements that it would be an eye for an eye from now on no matter what, may be in the paradoxical position of manning up into a reputation for cowardice.

I've seen the replays as often as some people watch I Love Lucy reruns even now. There's as little legitimate question that Pirates reliever Ernesto Frieri wanted anything but to injure Goldschmidt, which Goldschmidt himself noted in the aftermath, as there is that Diamondbacks reliever Randall Delgado, presumably but not yet confirmably on direct orders, had placed a target on McCutchen's back.

In spring training, Wade Miley drilled Colorado bellwether Troy Tulowitzki in retaliation for a raw minor leaguer, Tommy Kahnle, "a 23-year-old with no experience above Double-A who has never appeared on a top prospects list and who has next to zero chance at making the Rockies club out of camp," as Jack Moore of phrased it, hitting freshly-minted Diamondback Mark Trumbo with a pitch. The Diamondbacks lost their option of plausible denial from the moment general manager Kevin Towers began waxing about eye for an eye last winter.

First, Towers dumped mild-mannered pitching coach Charles Nagy after the 2013 season, apparently because he believed Nagy wasn't teaching enough frontier justice — in a season in which the Diamondbacks hit 60 batters while only 43 of their own batters were plunked. Remember the brawl provoked when then-Diamondback Ian Kennedy zipped one into Dodger star Yasiel Puig's nose? After another Snake, Cody Ross, was plunked inadvertently? And before Kennedy coned Zack Greinke on his helmet flap? During the scrum Nagy appeared to be playing peacemaker. Nagy's firing occurred a winter after the Diamondbacks unloaded a small truckload of talent they perceived as not being (ahem) tough enough.

Barely letting Nagy's firing sink in, Towers laid down the law: "I think come spring training, it will be duly noted that it's going to be an eye for an eye and we're going to protect one another. If not, if you have options there's ways to get you out of here and you don't follow suit or you don't feel comfortable doing it, you probably don't belong in a Diamondbacks uniform."

Well, now. The fun only began with Miley vs. Tulowitzki. It merely continued when Evan Marshall zipped Milwaukee's Ryan Braun, loading the bases, during a set in which Kyle Lohse drilled a pair of Snakes in retaliation for Gerardo Parra's getting plunked. Jonathan Lucroy returned the message in the best way possible, following Braun's drill with a grand slam. But those making close notes of such things noticed the Diamondbacks let their lesser lights do their dirty work while Lohse took care of business for the Brewers in that set.

Come August 1, a fine Friday night, Goldschmidt got hit and Frieri made a point of saying after the game that, considering his swollen ERA, the last thing on his mind was putting anybody on base. You can't blame the Diamondbacks for lamenting Goldschmidt's loss, even in a lost season. But even Goldschmidt understood that with the Pirates holding a five-run lead at the time they weren't about to try putting a charge into the other guys, a nuance the real headhunters never seem to get.

Apparently, the Diamondbacks didn't get that memo from their general manager or anyone else. And the Pirates went into the following day's game expecting someone to go down in retaliation, perhaps their defending National League MVP center fielder. It's the old code. You got the other guys' best hitter, don't be surprised if you get a message sent by way of your own best hitter. Indeed, McCutchen himself went into the Saturday game expecting to take one for the team and fast enough.

What he and the Pirates didn't expect was the Diamondbacks to take all game long, until they were behind by four in the ninth inning, before Delgado fired that 95 mph pitch right into McCutchen's back. Not on the first pitch, a fastball inside. Not on the second pitch, a slider down and away. On the third pitch. Even the Diamondbacks' broadcast team, watching it replayed several times, swore Delgado threw into McCutchen's back deliberately and that it demanded suspensions.

But if you're going to drop the other team's leading hitter after your leading hitter got drilled the night before, why on earth do you wait all game long to do it when you're already in the hole deep enough? The Outside Corner's Jaymes Langrehr put it squarely on the Snakes, their manager Kirk Gibson, and the apparent organizational philosophy under which no pitcher unwilling to "protect his teammates" would remain on the roster very long no matter the circumstances or the lack of true justification.

Langrehr noticed a pattern that ought to be sobering even for those recalcitrants among Diamondback fans who've been flooding the Net trying to paint the Pirates as the bad guys. "[The Diamondbacks] only seem interested in Protecting Their Own when they're losing," Langrehr writes.

"Luckily for them, they've been doing that a lot this year — only the Rockies (a mess in their own right) and the Cubs (actively trying to be bad) have done worse in the National League. When they hit a batter, Arizona is 8-20 this year. The only time they tried to score tough guy points in a close game, they hit Ryan Braun (for using PEDs against them in the 2011 playoffs) to load the bases, only to have Jonathan Lucroy hit a grand slam on the next pitch...

"Waiting until a game is out of hand to throw at somebody? That's being a coward. Using rookies, career minor leaguers, and generic relievers to throw at guys because you don't want somebody important getting suspended? That's being a coward. Intimidating those rookies and minor leaguers into throwing at guys because they fear for their roster spot if they don't? That's being a coward."

Baseball's worst kept secrets include this year's Pirates' pitching staff using the entire strike zone, not just the outer half. About that much the fumers among the Diamondbacks' fans are right. (One such beauty went so far as to suggest the Pirates should be banned from pitching to the inside half of the plate until other teams catch up to their total hit batsmen.) The bad news is that pitching inside will produce a plunk now and then. But the good news is that, most of the time, if you know what you're doing, you're not trying to hit the batter.

The Pirate staff may have a few control issues, but theirs isn't a staff full of Vicente Padillas. Last seen pitching in Japan, Padilla pitched his way out of Texas (and perhaps other places) after one too many instances of drilling opposing hitters and putting his teammates in near-constant fear that they'd be drilled back. Padilla even stamped the ticket irrevocably when he was seen laughing on the Texas bench after the respected Michael Young was drilled in no-questions-asked payback for a no-questions-asked Padilla duster.

McCutchen batted in the first inning August 2 with a man on (Josh Harrison opened the game with a line double) and one out. Allowing that both teams were warned before the game about any rough stuff, Arizona starter Chase Anderson could have done double duty as McCutchen stepped in to hit. Pitchers looking to send a message know how to do it despite the warnings, leaving nothing but doubt about intent. Anderson could have sent the Pirates the "message" and set up for a double play with just such a smart inside pitch.

Anderson got his double play setup — walking McCutchen on five pitches, none of which got anywhere near hitting the center fielder. Then he struck out the next hitter and got the man after that to ground out to the left side.

Harrison put the Pirates on the board in the third with a one-out bomb down the left field line. McCutchen batted one out later and grounded out. Again, nothing came even close to hitting him. The next time McCutchen batted was in the sixth with one out and the game tied at one. (The Diamondbacks tied it on an RBI single through the hole at second in the fifth.) He slashed a base hit to right.

By the time McCutchen batted again, in the eighth, both teams were well into their bullpens and two Pirates were on with nobody out. McCutchen broke the tie with an RBI single and the Pirates went on to enjoy a four-run inning sending eight men to the plate. And again no pitch came anywhere close to McCutchen's body.

Then came the ninth. Then came Delgado following an opening ground out with a walk (Harrison) and a line drive double (Gregor Polanco) setting up second and third. You might think about loading the bases to set up plays anywhere, of course, if you didn't have Ike Davis (erstwhile Met power hitter) following McCutchen in the lineup. Ball one. Ball two. Then came the payback pitch, right in McCutchen's back.

Bases loaded. Delgado stepping off the mound and heading for his dugout at the moment McCutchen's back met the ball, almost as though he didn't wait for the ejection that came just about the moment McCutchen bent over in pain. Then McCutchen slammed his bat into the ground in obvious rage, until Pirates manager Clint Hurdle urged him to first base.

Down 5-1, either Gibson or Delgado on his own decided that that was the "safe" moment to get McCutchen as payback for Goldschmidt. Eury de la Rosa relieved Delgado and promptly struck out Davis. But the Pirates let the Snakes know just how safe it wasn't. Russell Martin lashed an RBI single. And Brent Morel followed with a two-run single. Frieri would come in to work the Arizona ninth and manage to close it out despite David Peralta's two-run homer.

Never mind yet another Diamondbacks loss. By God they'd shown the Pirates who the men were around here. When McCutchen grabbed his left side jogging toward first base the following day after hitting a sacrifice fly, first it was feared he'd injured an oblique muscle and that it might have ties to the Saturday drilling. It turns out the cartilage binding a muscle to a rib was torn. That could cost McCutchen six weeks — and the Pirates a lot more in a tight National League Central race — but it may not have been caused by Delgado's deliberate fastball.

It seems surreal to imagine the Diamondbacks' (we use the term loosely) brain trust congratulating Delgado in the clubhouse for manning up on McCutchen with a four-run Arizona deficit in the ninth. But surely there were those who had such an imagining. What does baseball government imagine to be the way to put the headhunting Snakes in their place? And when will they imagine it?

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