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Andrew McCutchen reacts to getting hit by Mike Leake Monday night
Maybe Aroldis Chapman is just mad at the Pirates because he got played by a woman in Pittsburgh who was attempting to rob him last June. Maybe it’s something else. Whatever it is, there is a problem. Last night he buzzed the Bucs Neil Walker in the ninth inning and tonight the Pirates are going to have to do something about it.
Throwing a baseball 90+ miles-an-hour at a batter is still considered by many the epitome of machismo. A statement of dominance and control. Your team is getting beaten by another team too often? Hit one of their batters. A batter hits a home run and it goes too far or he stares too long? Drill the next guy. You want to show ‘em you own ‘em, buzz ‘em. Whatever happens, make sure you don’t get shown up yourself. Make sure everyone knows you’re the man.
And its ridiculous. It’s vainglorious bullshit.
This isn’t about pitching inside. Pitching inside, to make sure guys don’t lunge across the plate to drive pitches the opposite way or turn on every fastball, is a requirement to successful pitching. Brushing guys back to make them less comfortable and to control both sides of the strike zone is a tried and true path to success.
Throwing at guys from the shoulder up and at their heads is completely different. And it’s idiotic. Most importantly, it’s dangerous as hell.
And now MLB and Chapman have given the Bucs no choice but to retaliate because the game of baseball still has no idea how to manage the situation. They don’t want to “legislate intent,” so guys get drilled night after night with the smallest of repercussions. Intead we have our 21st century version of jousting. Batters get your armor.
Monday night was the opening game of a four-game series between the Pirates and the Reds. These teams have a bit of history of throwing at each other. Ok, let me rephrase that. The Reds have a bit of history throwing at the Pirates and the Pirates have a much-less-accomplished history of responding. The most-recent history centers on August 3, 2012 when Chapman, he of the 100+ mile an hour fastball, hit Andrew McCutchen up high (here is the VIDEO and yes he is a badass). McCutchen was beyond hot, but there was no opportunity to retaliate because it was the ninth inning and the Reds didn’t bat again, winning the game 3-0.
The next day the Reds Mike Leake hits the Pirates Josh Harrison in the second inning and both teams were warned. The Pirates did nothing the Reds first time up and now they were handcuffed by the umpiring crew. The following day, the crew chief Brian Gorman went into both clubhouses before the game and essentially warned both managers. The Reds hit two more Pirates batters, the Pirates won the game, nothing ensued.
Put it on Pirates game two starter James McDonald, put it on manager Clint Hurdle, put it on the Pirates contending for a playoff spot deep in the season for the first time in twenty years. Whatever the reason, the Pirates didn’t retaliate. (Clint Hurdle has said there was a plan, but one can only assume the course of events and umpire intervention derailed it.)
That Friday night when McCutchen was hit, the Pirates were 60-44. The Reds, 64-40. They were battling for the division title. The Pirates went 19-39 (.328), the rest of the way. They played the Reds six more times. In the first matchup each team hit one batter, but none were hit in the remaining five. Why did the Reds care? They had already left their calling card. It’s hard to argue their intimidation didn’t have some effect. McCutchen’s batting average dropped 46 points. By the time they met again, the Pirates were out of the race.
This season the teams played six times before Monday night. Batters on both sides were hit, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The Pirates were up 4-2 on the season series and came into Monday’s game with a 41-28 record. The Reds, a half-game better at 42-28.
Leading off the top of the fourth, Mike Leake hit Andrew McCutchen in the shoulder with an 0-2 cutter. Because it’s Leake, who had already hit McCutchen with a pitch in the neck in 2010, and Cutch it raised an eyebrow, but in a 0-0 game Leake got the benefit of the doubt.
Chapman, not so much. He has a history of headhunting. Aside from the McCutchen incident last year he twice threw beanballs at Nick Swisher earlier this season. And last night in the ninth inning of a 4-1 game he buzzed one right at the head of Pirates leadoff batter Neil Walker.
Now the Pirates have to take matters into their own hands. And no, the Pirates reacting isn’t the vainglorious b.s. I referenced earlier. This has now become about safety and protecting teammates. Chapman is legitimately putting players in serious harm’s way. If MLB isn’t going to police him, the Pirates have to make sure his own team will. Chapman, he of zero career plater appearances, isn’t coming to bat, so Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and others are going to pay the price. They might as well pick out their protective armor now.
39 years ago in the most classic case of retaliation ever, Dock Ellis took matters into his own hands against the same Cincinnati Reds. This is a great recap of Ellis’ night with tons of great quotes. We romanticize what Ellis did that night because of who he was, the legend surrounding him and the fact that we romanticize virtually everything about our national pastime as being quaint from our smug perspective of the present. We shouldn’t. Throwing at guys' heads is serious business.
But because the game hasn’t taken one step forward in fifty years, hasn’t figured out how to protect players and put teeth into punishment, “policing the game” is still the tried and true manner and now the Pirates have to put it into practice.
When asked recently about the Dodgers-Diamondbacks beanball-fest and how teams handle situations when emotions get a little frayed, Clint Hurdle responded: "You try to handle it professionally without going rogue. And sometimes at the end of the day, rogue is the answer for that particular team to get angst out, to get frustration out. To get whatever they need to get out. I've seen it happen a lot. It usually happens in the summer. I mean we're 60 games into the season. Guys have a feel for things. There is a little more weight tied to things. The frustrations and anxieties pick up."
Tonight I expect you will see the those frustrations boil over. It’s gonna go rogue.
It really doesn't get much better than this. Marte's quickly proving that there aren't many in the game better defensively than him.
Pirates added Brandon Cumpton to the taxi squad today and he is likely to get the start tomorrow in place of AJ Burnett who went on the DL yesterday. Cumpton would be the 11th different Pirates starter this season and third this week. They used 10 in each of the past two seasons.
1.) Game 2 was an absolutely dominating 60 minutes by the Bruins. If Games 3 & 4 go remotely like that it will be a short series.
Turning points? None. Down 1-0 28 seconds in after a terrible Sydney Crosby giveaway, Pittsburgh never found it’s way offensively. The Bruins did a fantastic job of limiting the time and space of the Penguins forwards who were sloppy with the puck and failed to create traffic in front of Tukka Rask. Defensively the Penguins were even worse. Credit to Boston.
It’s rare, but there have been times this season when the Penguins effort has appeared sub-standard. It’s always a fine line between giving full credit to one time versus condemning the play of the other. In this case both seem warranted. The Penguins got outworked all over the ice.
2.) The Penguins goaltending situation is officially a concern.
As mentioned after Game 1 Tomas Vokoun deserves a ton of credit for getting the Pens through round 1, but he was the Penguins #2 this season for a reason. He is a steady, not spectacular netminder. It’s not that he has played poorly, although he was not good last night, but he hasn’t come up with many big saves since round one and none in this series.
I’ve said a million times the goaltender in hockey is the most influential position in all of sports. Pittsburgh fans always worry about the other goalie being able to steal a game or a series. The shoe is now on the other foot. Marc-Andre Fleury has been there. He has the pedigree. He did nothing to engender any confidence with his play last night, but it’s time for Dan Bylsma to turn back to The Flower.
3.) Dan Bylsma isn’t in a danger...yet.
I have been squarely in Dan Bylsma’s corner through the Penguins first round exits the past three years. Coaching changes are far too routine in the NHL. Building a stable organization is much more important to long-term success than NHL owners seem to realize. Dan has done a great job in the regular season during his tenure with Pittsburgh, but playoff success is what matters.
Through two rounds Bylsma has pushed all the right buttons, shuffling players in and out of the lineup at just the right time. Now he faces a much bigger challenge. After Game 1 there didn’t seem to be much need to worry about style or tactics. Now there does. The Penguins braintrust wasn’t able to construct a gameplan to counter the Flyers last year. In this series it’s going to take more than just “getting to our game.” Dan needs to find an answer. His lineup decisions for Game 3 will be telling. Jarome Iginla has been invisible. Would he consider benching him for rookie Beau Bennett? Will Simon Despres get another opportunity? Or, will Dan decide there is no need to push the panic button and stick with the vets?
4.) Big players need to be their best on the big stage. The Penguins’ stars have been terrible.
The spotlight shines the brightest in the playoffs. It where reputations are made. Sidney Crosby, always one to rise to the occasion, was a non-factor in Game 1 and was worse in Game 2. Maybe the worst performance I’ve ever seen from him. Kris Letang? Ditto. Evengi Malkin? Nothing since he decided he should throwdown with Patrice Bergeron 40 minutes into the series.
Suggesting the series is over at this point suggests the Penguins lack heart and professionalism. That’s a bridge too far. But they certainly lack discipline and composure, and often at the biggest moments. Last night nothing went right and that needs to change in a hurry. The Penguins need their stars to be stars. Or they’re done.
5.) It only takes one win.
The Boston players and coaches are not only doing all the right things, they are saying all the right things. They are a tremendously difficult team to play against from behind. Tukka Rask has been good and his team has been excellent in front of him. Boston fully understands it is first to four and will be prepared for everything the Penguins throw at them in Game 3.
Having said that, one win by Pittsburgh would totally change the outlook of the series. It would provide a gameplan going forward and give the Penguins confidence and momentum. The question is will they get that by the end of the week. If not, it’s going to be a long summer.
Photos courtesy of Getty Images
1.) The Penguins are the better team, even after losing Game 1, 3-0.
For the first 30 minutes the Penguins were clearly better. They possessed the puck, out-skated the Bruins and created more good scoring opportunities. From that point, the Bruins became much more formidable in the neutral zone. After taking a 2-0 lead, Boston locked things down and proceed to earn a workman-like victory. That doesn’t change the fact that the talent-level is tilted the other way.
Tukka Rask was solid but the Penguins had 8-10 legitimately good scoring chances and converted none of them. Don’t expect that to be the case going forward. It’s the first to four, not one.
2.) Evgeni Malkin was the best player on the ice for two periods and, as is too often the case, was the dumbest player on the ice at a crucial moment.
On a rare evening when Sidney Crosby was not the preeminent presence (and let’s talk less about Sid’s flat blade when he goes backhand now that he has repeatedly failed to get pucks up into open nets on the forehand in these playoffs), Geno was brilliant. He created multiple opportunities for himself and others. Then at the end of the second he lost his cool. Again. Sure he whipped Patrice Bergeron’s ass, but the Penguins were starting the third period with 1:30 remaining on a power play. Malkin ended up in the box for about eight minutes to start the third as there was no stoppage in play after his major expired. That’s when the game was decided. Up 1-0 in that situation, Boston will trade Bergeron for Malkin on a Pittsburgh PP all day, every day and twice in Game 1 of the ECF.
Getting under Geno’s skin continues to be a tried and true way for opponents to get the Penguins off their game. Dan Bylsma addressed it again after the game, as he has all year. I don’t know what will cause him to change, but Geno’s lack of discipline is the Penguins kryptonite.
3.) Matt Cooke isn't going to get the benefit of the doubt and shouldn’t.
Cooke boarded MaQuaid. It was a penalty. Cooke is at fault. But even the Bruins’ coach Claude Julien admitted McQuaid, who saw Cooke coming, put himself in a vulnerable position. The play was just like hundreds we’ve seen this season and the league still has not clarified how they should be called. Most, but not all, were penalties. Few, if any, were majors with the required game misconduct.
Brad Marchand’s hit on James Neal later in the period was just as dangerous. Is it fair? Of course not. But Cooke earned his reputation and has to play accordingly, which means smarter.
4.) Faceoffs should be a much bigger concern than the fact that the power play went 0-4.
The power play created chances, hit a couple of posts and should be fine. Concern about the power play should be focused on Malkin and Letang playing the points together and continuing to give up dangerous shorthanded opportunities. Boston got the rarely seen 2 vs. 0 in this one (yes, Marchand interfered with Letang, although Letang didn’t help his cause by diving), but Vokoun was able to poke check the puck off Bergeron’s stick.
Much more importantly, the Bruins, an excellent faceoff team, won 67% of the draws in this one. Jussi Jokinen was the only Penguin who won more than half, going 6/10. The Pens top three centers were awful with Crosby 6/17, Malkin 1/6 and Sutter 3/10 for a combined 30%. That needs to change and it probably means the Penguins need to figure out a way to have someone other than Malkin take draws when his line is on the ice.
5.) Tomas Vokoun was not responsible for the loss, but if the Penguins believe Marc-Andre Fleury is their best goalie, now is the time to make a change.
Tomas Vokoun was there when the Penguins needed him, playing brilliantly in the Islanders series. Since then Vokoun has been good. He was solid in the Ottawa series, but wasn’t really tested. Last night, more of the same. He was brought in as an insurance policy and it has paid out handsomely, but he’s the team’s number two.
The goal is to win the Stanley Cup. If the Penguins management has lost faith in Fleury, then by all means stick with Vokoun. He hasn’t done anything to lose the job. But, if the organization still thinks Fleury is their best goalie, this is the time to make a change. Teams rarely win the Cup without spectacular goaltending. This Penguins team is talented enough to do that, but they have a goalie who has been spectacular in the past and during this regular season. Dan Bylsma has said all the right things about MAF, his focus and his practice habits while he has been relegated to manning the door to the bench. If he actually believes it and doesn’t think it’s in Fleury’s head, #29 should be between the pipes Monday.
The latest edition of the Bucs Dugout Podcast, talking Pirates with my co-host Charlie Wilmoth, is posted.
If you didn't live through the 1979 Pirates season this may not resonate, but a great infographic of the uniform combinations the Bucs wore that year. Bring 'em back. All black was a personal favorite, but never went all black with the black hat.
I would have been so jazzed as a boy if a player played catch with me. (VIDEO)
Is this crazy good or crazy bad? I mean you have to walk around with your shirt up the whole time.
Photo courtesy of Seth Rorabaugh's twitter account @emptynetters