White Sox, Mariners start series with self-policing

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

After Diamondbacks and Pirates exchanged harmful inside pitches, here's another attempt to follow the unwritten rules by the nonexistent book

Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson had a good chunk of the baseball-watching world calling for his job after Randall Delgado drilled Andrew McCutchen in the back last Sunday.

The pitch came a day after Pirates reliever Ernesto Frieri broke Paul Goldschmidt's wrist with a plunking, which effectively ended his season. McCutchen and a lot of other people weren't happy about Delgado's answer, and for a couple of reasons.

No. 1: Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers prioritized retaliation when explaining the firing of coaches during the offseason, and their subsequent decisions suggest they have little idea of what's important. Those warped values effectively lost a game to the Brewers on June 18.

The second time, Marshall hit Braun right in the butt with a 95-mph fastball, getting himself ejected and loading the bases. He also got high fives from the bloodthirsty Diamondbacks dugout, with manager Kirk Gibson being the very first to greet him.

What happened next was poetic justice. Jonathan Lucroy hit his second homer of the game off Brad Ziegler, a grand slam that gave the Brewers a 7-4 lead in a game they ended up winning 7-5.

No. 2: McCutchen said he had no problem with Arizona retaliating, but he hated the way they did it by waiting until the ninth inning and the third pitch.

"After a slider away. They're setting me up that inning -- and it was really not appreciated. Are they hoping I check my swing and it hits my hand, and I get hurt, too? If you're going to hit me, hit me. If you're going to miss me with the first pitch, hit me with the second pitch ... try to hit me. But you don't throw a slider on the next pitch, and wait for the third pitch. Because that's how people get hurt.

The unwritten rules of baseball are murky at best, which is problematic when they provide guidance for the most appropriate way to throw an object at a player as hard as possible. Worse yet, the more one talks about it, the more unhinged one sounds. That's what turned the tide against Towers and Gibson over the offseason, and when the rhetoric gets that extreme on one side, the counterbalance is to wonder why throwing at batters doesn't trigger an automatic suspension.

But Paul Konerko, in talking about the Zack Greinke-Carlos Quentin brawl last season, explained why pitchers can't be allowed to miss freely.

"If (Greinke) lets one go up in there and it breaks Carlos’ hand, they would just say ‘Hey, that got away from him. That’s part of the game.’ You know, throwing up in there time and time again and having somebody run out there and break your collarbone, that’s part of the game as well. Hitters get hit up in there a lot and that’s just coined as part of the game. At some point you have to put your foot down and that’s what you saw happen there."

Under Robin Ventura, the White Sox are no strangers to the practice of protection, and they've also tripped other teams' alarms. Each time, they've handled it as correctly as something this volatile can be handled by 1) not talking too much, and 2) locking in on a key nuance.

The Sox' own circumstances for retaliation arose on Thursday night, as Seattle pitchers twice hit Jose Abreu -- one a direct hit on the elbow, and another high-and-tight fastball that clipped his forearm. After the second plunking in the top of the eighth, Maikel Cleto drilled Kendrys Morales below the waist with the first pitch in the bottom of the inning. Morales took his base without incident as home plate umpire Toby Basner warned both benches, although Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon was ironically ejected for arguing that justice shouldn't have been meted out equally.

The Sox seemed to play this the right way. For one, Cleto hit Morales with the first pitch the next inning, with no delay or disguise, so that takes care of McCutchen's objection.

More importantly, Ventura and/or Sox pitchers didn't reflexively invoke the Code of Hammurabi. Plunkings aren't as simple as an eye for an eye, because accidents do happen. Part of the reason the McCutchen HBP seemed unfair from the outside is that Goldschmidt's lacked both a motive and a history on Frieri's part.

In Thursday's Sox-Mariners game, the first HBP didn't trigger a response, because Abreu's going to get hit every so often. But when two pitches miss in one game -- and both to a very important hitter -- the Sox have to show they noticed. Otherwise, they're exposing themselves to potential injury because the Mariners aren't able to safely execute their game plan.

(That's not melodramatic, either. You may remember random Indians relievers throwing inside at will and without consequence against the Sox a few years ago, busting the hands of Brent Lillibridge and Gordon Beckham in the process. Those injuries effectively marked the end of each player's peak.)

Unless the rules for HBPs change -- the second one is worth two bases? -- the purpose pitch is the primary learning tool about the hazards of pitching inside poorly. And while it's dangerously vague and open-ended to simply say "baseball polices itself," the Sox and Mariners appeared to walk this tightrope correctly. The Sox accepted one miss to Abreu, but objected to the second. Cleto made that point with a purpose pitch that followed protocol. Morales took his base without incident. Basner said "enough's enough" with the warning, and McClendon stood up for his guy. If you downplay the machismo and chest-thumping and emphasize the litigation aspects, it all seems more acceptable.

I suppose we'll find out if both teams are squared away if the rest of the series proceeds without incident, but Seattle already got a helluva last laugh. After Cleto drilled Morales, Seager avenged the HBP with a smoked two-run homer. It's hard to retaliate any better than that.

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