ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — If not for the length of a marathon game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox — five hours and 24 minutes, the second-longest contest in Rays history — John Lackey’s plunking of Matt Joyce that led to both benches clearing in the sixth inning would have been the lasting image of a 14-inning affair that began Monday night and ended early Tuesday morning.
Still, in a quiet Rays clubhouse at Tropicana Field following Boston’s 10-8 victory, Joyce had strong words for the 34-year-old right-hander. He said Lackey’s act felt like “a pretty bush-league move.” He said “it was obvious” that Lackey had targeted him. He said the reason for the beaning, which stemmed from Joyce dropping his bat after hitting a long foul ball to right field in the second after a 3-0 fastball, was “absolutely ridiculous.”
“Obviously, Lackey was upset at the 3-0 swing,” said Joyce, who went 1 for 5 with a home run. “He yelled at me as I ran down the first-base line. As far as I understood, he was pretty upset that I dropped my bat on the 3-0 (pitch). I was actually pretty upset at myself that I got such a good pitch to hit, and I missed it.”
Rays manager Joe Maddon spent a significant part of his postgame address defending Joyce and criticizing Lackey. To Maddon, there was little question that Lackey hit Joyce on purpose. At the time, the sequence highlighted the emotions of an entertaining but ever-lasting game between American League East rivals.
Still, to Maddon, Lackey’s pitch had no place in the game.
“The sad part is, I’ve always considered Lackey a good teammate,” Maddon said. “But right there, he could get one of his own players hurt.”
In the sixth, with two outs and bases empty, Lackey had thrown a 79-mph curveball to jump ahead in the count with Joyce. His 92nd pitch of the night hit Joyce below the right shoulder blade, forcing the hitter to twist away from home plate. Joyce flipped the bat from his right hand, sending it tumbling about two feet before him.
Joyce moved toward first base and pointed at Lackey with his left hand. Then catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia bumped into Joyce as the hitter yelled toward the mound. Joyce gestured toward Lackey with his right hand, never losing eye contact. Lackey walked toward Joyce. Benches cleared.
What happened next was, frankly, anticlimactic. Most of the 15,477 fans present stood and cheered, expecting a fight. The teams met about halfway between home plate and first base … and nothing happened. No punches. No ejections. No heavy shoves.
“I really did sense among that group of Red Sox that they were totally not into that moment, because they knew it was inappropriate to hit Matt on purpose.” Maddon said. “And furthermore, because one of them could get hurt.”
After about 30 seconds, players and coaches walked toward their dugouts. On the next pitch, Ben Zobrist smacked a 91-mph fastball to right field. Lackey was pulled. Reliever Craig Breslow entered.
Lackey left the field. From Red Sox fans, he received a standing ovation. From Rays fans, boos.
After a bizarre sequence in a game that will be recalled for going on … and on … Joyce was clear about where he stood.
“You come down to nobody on base with two outs, the guy has great control and hardly missed inside at all,” he said. “To miss up and in that much, it’s obvious.”