CINCINNATI — As so often opens in a keenly-contested, hot-button baseball series, one small thing can grow and bloat and explode into something big.
There is that possibility this weekend during the Cincinnati Reds-Pittsburgh Pirates series, a three-game argument for supremacy in the National League Central.
All was calm and all was bright for the Reds with two outs in the ninth inning Friday night. Aroldis Chapman, the Cuban Fire-starter, was facing Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh’s best player and perhaps the best player in baseball at the moment.
Chapman threw a pitch up-and-in — real up and real in. It was clocked at 101 miles and hour and it implanted baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s signature on McCutchen’s left shoulder.
He didn’t like it. The Pirates didn’t like it. That’s their best player that Chapman turned into William Tell’s son.
On Saturday afternoon the Pirates were still mumbling about the indiscretion, an indiscretion that Chapman and Reds manager Dusty Baker say it was purely accidental.
To make certain, after Friday’s game Baker asked Chapman if he hit McCutchen on purpose and Chapman said, “No, I didn’t. It is just that he is going so good I was trying to go up and in on him.”
That satisfied Baker, but not the Pirates.
Baker, though, understands Pittsburgh’s displeasure. And so do the Reds. It’s called baseball etiquette and in this case it is called, “You hit our No. 3 hitter and we’ll hit your No. 3 hitter and then it’s over.”
Cincinnati pitcher Homer Bailey asked before the game, “Who’s gonna wear it tonight for us, who’s going to bat third?” When told it was Brandon Phillips (later changed to Jay Bruce), Bailey said, “So they hit him in the side and we’ll be done with it and we have a runner on base.”
It didn’t work that way, though. It was the Reds once again igniting the fuse. Before the Pirates did any retaliating, Reds starter Mike Leake hit Josh Harrison with a pitch in the second inning.
Some hard looks and hard stares were exchanged, then plate umpire Brian Gorman issued a warning to both dugouts. That meant that the next pitch thrown in anger would earn the ejection of the pitcher and his manager.
Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle couldn’t wait. He protested the warning and when he did it too vociferously he was excused for the rest of the night by Gorman.
A Pittsburgh insider recalled that the Los Angeles Dodgers hit McCutchen a couple of years ago, but Pirates pitcher Zach Duke did not retaliate, “And he had a hard time living the with guys in the clubhouse the rest of the time he was here.” That seemed almost like it was required that Pittsburgh’s Saturday pitcher, James McDonald through a duster at Dusty’s guys.
Baker, a great admirer of McCutchen, put it in great perspective, as he so often does.
“That’s to be expected, what they think, when their best player gets hit,” said Baker. “It wasn’t intentional. We were just pitching him inside and when you pitch inside those things happen. I’d be upset, too, because it hurt.
“He hasn’t done anything to merit us hitting him intentionally except play hard. He just plays hard and has done nothing to merit us hitting him. He doesn’t clown around, he doesn’t show people up, he just plays hard and he plays great.”
When it was mentioned that the Pirates might not care about apologies or explanations, Baker said, “Well, there is nothing I can do about that. I can just tell you my feelings and my reasonings. I’m sorry if they took it that way but there was definitely no intent.”
Baker added one more thought by saying, “You know there isn’t much difference between a ball and a strike on a hit batsman.”
Mat Latos shut out the Pirates for 7 1/3 innings in that game and said, “If he (McCutchen) doesn’t want to get hit then don’t crowd that plate so much. The inside of the plate belongs to us (the pitcher).”
Not only are the Reds up 2-0 in the beaned batters category they are 2-and-0 in the series, beating the Pirates Saturday, 5-4, to take a 5 ½-game lead in the National League Central.