Ben Zobrist plunked, but Rays win battle of scoreboard

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Ben Zobrist stood in the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse with a fresh red mark on his right wrist, a symbol of his anger and pride. Baseball is a game of unwritten rules, of scores made and scores settled, and he assumed a Detroit Tigers pitcher would plunk someone before the day was through.

That someone turned out to be him, five pitches into right-hander Rick Porcello’s afternoon. A tiff between the Rays and Tigers that began in the 10th inning Saturday, when Tampa Bay reliever Fernando Rodney buzzed a fastball near Miguel Cabrera’s chin, carried into the first inning of the Rays’ 3-1 victory Sunday at Tropicana Field.

The deed: A 94-mph fastball that smacked Zobrist on the hand, causing him to do a half-spin in the batter’s box before shooting a stern glare toward the mound as warnings were issued. The reaction: Well, it depends who you ask.

“I think it’s cause for the umpires to do something in that situation,” said Zobrist, clearly annoyed.

“It just got away from me,” Porcello said, clearly not.

From the start, this mini-drama between Detroit and Tampa Bay pitted one narrative against the other. On Saturday, Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, “We will not tolerate that,” when asked about Rodney’s high-and-inside pitch, which was part of a sequence that resulted in a key strikeout. Meanwhile, down a corridor that same night, Rays manager Joe Maddon said, “It seems like Miguel might have been upset, and I really don’t know why.”

Details remain fuzzy. It is not known why Cabrera jawed toward the Rays dugout and to whom Saturday. (Was he annoyed by the strikeout or what came before?) Perhaps he was frustrated after an unsatisfying end to a dramatic at-bat that featured his power against Rodney’s heat. Perhaps there was another reason.

But the complete details are not necessary to read through the fog. The tension was obvious from Cabrera’s first at-bat Sunday in the first inning, when he was greeted by the announced crowd of 23,427 with a curious mix of cheers and boos.

Shortly after, Zobrist stepped into the batter’s box, soon to become a central figure in this shadow game. He and other Rays players suspected something might happen Sunday, given Leyland’s earlier comments. Eventually, Zobrist had sharp words of his own, directed at the majors’ most dangerous hitter.

“For Cabrera being the best hitter in the world, he was a little sensitive last night,” said Zobrist, who finished 0 for 3. “That was my thought on it. Obviously, Fernando wasn’t trying to hit him. He was trying to throw a fastball inside. I think the way that you play the game, you have to throw inside.”

Maddon shared a similar opinion on Cabrera, even going as far to say, “He’s wonderful. I just wish he wouldn’t cry so much.”

Perspective can be a funny thing, bent to fit what one side wants to see or hear. Leyland is an old-school manager with an old-school way of having his say. On Sunday morning, before the game, he sat behind his desk in an office that carried the smell of cigarette smoke and said about the Rodney/Cabrera incident, “That’s history.”

Well, obviously it wasn’t. Leyland played coy Sunday evening, saying Porcello’s beaning of Zobrist was “nothing new. We had three guys get hit last week, and we hit a couple guys last week. That’s all part of the game.”

Perhaps, but it would be humorous to accept that statement without tongue planted firmly in-cheek.

Leyland is right about one thing: Porcello’s throw is part of the game. On Saturday, Rodney did his job by sending a message to Cabrera in a high-stakes showdown. On Sunday, Porcello did the same, justified or not, by hitting Zobrist.

First, there was an action. Then the Tigers countered with an equal and opposite reaction of their own. That’s baseball.

“You never want to feel,” Rays catcher Jose Lobaton said of Zobrist, “what he felt when he got hit.”

The Rays, however, had the last laugh. They left Tropicana Field, bound for a four-game trip to Houston, after winning two of three games against the American League Central leaders.

In the end, most in Tampa Bay’s clubhouse said the victory meant more than a mythical mind-game triumph. Maddon even cracked to reporters that they should read Mario Puzo, author of “The Godfather,” to understand why the Rays refused to retaliate Sunday.

“I thought it was absolutely uncalled for,” Maddon said. “Hopefully, the league will take a look at that. I was just pleased with the way that we played the game.”

The past two days here featured games on two stages: The field and in the mind.

The Rays won on the only scoreboard that counts.

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