When the White Sox hired Robin Ventura as their new manager, the first thing that came to mind for too many people was the Nolan Ryan incident. While watching three variations of two jokes roll in by the score, I began to think his ill-fated charging of the mound could be a blessing in disguise.
Nobody expected Ventura to run at Ryan -- or any pitcher, really -- but Ryan had a rich history of sociopathic behavior, one the Sox knew well. So when Ryan hit Ventura with the first pitch because Ventura had the nerve to single off him in the first inning, Ventura tried to put a stop to it. It didn't quite work that night, but Texas manager Kevin Kennedy remembered it later, when he reshuffled the rotation to make sure Ryan wouldn't face the Sox again.
The baseball-loving public doesn't know or doesn't care about that part -- they just remember the old man punching the young guy on the top of the head over and over again. But I thought that if Ventura was that willing to stand up for his teammates, he might be able to instill that spirit in his team.
The Sox needed to develop that instinct somehow, because it went missing in Ozzie Guillen's later years. Whether Guillen got gun-shy after The Sean Tracey Shaming or the pitchers simply didn't know any better, White Sox hitters took a beating from amateur-hour pitchers who couldn't hit an inside spot to save their big-league careers, and received minimal support from their own staff. Defenses were few and far between, much less successful ones.
On Friday afternoon, Ventura's Sox would get their first chance to show their mettle when Jeff Samardzija drilled Paul Konerko in the face with an 2-2 splitter.
There's no way to truly know whether Samardzija's beanball had any intent behind it. At least neither side will be able to convince the other.
His defenders will say he hit Konerko on a 2-2 count, and he threw a splitter. If he were trying to send a message, he wouldn't bother throwing two strikes first, and he'd throw a fastball.
The prosecution will say the only other batter he hit this season was Jason Heyward -- and, like Konerko, Heyward absorbed a high-and-tight pitch after taking Samardzija deep earlier in the game. And Heyward is the only batter who had homered off Samardzija early enough to get thrown at later, so, technically, Samardzija hadn't passed up the opportunity to drill a guy who had bested him this season. Plus, Samardzija had talked some trash leading up to the game, which falls into the "circumstantial" category. Plus, just ... just look at him.
Either way, it doesn't matter. The Sox had to retaliate. Not only did Samardzija knock the White Sox's best player out of the game with a pitch to the face, but he nearly beaned Alexei Ramirez earlier in the game. If he couldn't pitch inside with any measure of precision, then the Sox would have to legislate away his right to miss up and in by triggering the warnings.
We've seen what it looks like when the Sox don't get the umpires' attention, and there's little to no benefit. Vicente Padilla gets a second free shot at A.J. Pierzynski when the Sox don't answer the first purpose pitch. Crappy Cleveland pitchers can plunk the Sox four times in a doubleheader after breaking Brent Lillibridge's hand the series before. Guillen didn't think the Indians were hitting the Sox on purpose, which was probably true. But they felt awfully comfortable with missing awfully inside because the Sox never responded, and that was a big problem regardless of intent.
The Sox took away Samardzija's right to miss (or "miss") recklessly in fairly quick order. Philip Humber could have thrown at Samardzija, who started the bottom of the third, but instead he went for the Cubs' best hitter, Bryan LaHair, in the fourth. Humber didn't hit him -- he threw behind the "LaHair" on Lahair's jersey. Guys like Phil Rogers will say Humber threw behind LaHair's head, but LaHair only made it close by ducking. Really, they can quibble all they want, but the Cubs don't get the right to be that picky about where Humber didn't hit their guy, considering Samardzija, you know, actually hit Konerko in the face.
Setting semantics aside, Humber opted to avoid giving the Cubs a free leadoff baserunner in a one-run game. He instead chose the more pragmatic route, getting the warnings, and then trying to get the hitter. Alexei Ramirez failed on his front by throwing wide and allowing Samardzija to reach and Humber ended up walking LaHair, but he pitched around both for scoreless innings. Posting a zero is key in retaliating successfully, because it's a Pyrrhic victory otherwise. The last time Konerko got hit in the face, Mark Buehrle plunked Michael Cuddyer, and the Twins went on to score three runs. That diminished the returns on revenge quite a bit.
And after the game, Humber and Ventura both issued flat denials of intent (with Ventura looking Rogers in the eye for an extended amount of time while doing so). That's usually the case, but as Cole Hamels showed earlier this month, sometimes they forget honesty is the worst policy with the commissioner's office.
Start to finish, it was a job well done. Some Sox fans might have wanted Humber to be a bit more bloodthirsty by drilling Samarzija with extreme prejudice, but that's not necessary. The Sox got what they needed by throwing behind LaHair, and then they got out with a win.
No. 1: The WGN feed showed Ventura talking to Jake Peavy in the dugout, then showed Peavy and A.J. Pierzynski exchanging words in the dugout following the fourth. Bob Brenly noted that Peavy had been jawing at Samardzija from the dugout, so perhaps there was some disagreement regarding how the Sox went about sending a message. If that's the case, that they're even having the dialogue is a positive sign.
No. 2: Gordon Beckham's awesomely illegal tag on David DeJesus wasn't connected to the beanball battle -- he just lost his balance while turning to apply a quick tag, and DeJesus left himself open to a body blow by sliding late and popping up. Gunning for the same small area resulted in quite the collision, and a beneficial call from Marty Foster.
Still, I appreciated Beckham's physical commitment to the play, which enabled him to steal a big out when a swipe tag wouldn't have. And also, I appreciate his game-winning homer. Beckham has spent plenty of time learning from Konerko, and tagging Samardzija with the loss after Samardzija tagged Konerko must be a nice token of appreciation.