The inside story


Chico Ruiz

Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014 is 50 years to the day after Chico Ruiz, a rookie infielder for the Reds, stole home with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson at bat to start one of the most famous collapses ever. Ruiz’s run was the only one of the Reds’ 1-0 win over the Phils, who went on to lose nine more in a row, and all of a 6.5 game lead with 12 to play. The Cards won the 1964 NL pennant (and the Series in seven over the Yankees) and the Phils and Reds tied for second, a game back. Ruiz hit .244 with 11 steals and 33 runs scored in 311 at-bats in ’64, his career-highs in the latter three categories. Ruiz was a utility player with the Reds through ’69, and then sent from the Reds with Alex Johnson – a rookie outfielder with the ’64 Phillies — to the Angels. With the Angels, Ruiz was accused of pointing a gun in 1971 in the locker room at Johnson, a close friend but who had a reputation of moodiness and abrasiveness. Ruiz was sent to the minors. Before spring training in 1972, Ruiz, born in Cuba but who had become a U.S. citizen just a month earlier according to his bio at sabr.org, died in a one-car crash in California. Alex Johnson attended the funeral.

If you judge a team by its enemies, you’d think the Tampa Bay Rays would be popular, and their stadium would be more than half filled by the crowds that spread out around the Trop with leg room for all.

The Rays have done something this season previously thought to be impossible: they’ve united Red Sox and Yankees fans in their enmity.

First David Ortiz declared war on David Price and the Rays back in May, then Yankees manager Joe Girardi created a second front this week after two series in which Chase Headley was hit in the jaw and Derek Jeter in the hand by the Rays.

“If you are going to pitch inside, pitch the right way,” Girardi said. “If you can’t pitch inside, don’t pitch inside. We are not pincushions.”

Girardi is right. Pincushions aren’t as well compensated.

Girardi no doubt felt his batters’ pain, although he could have looked on the bright side: given that Jeter was in the midst of an 0-for-28 slump, getting hit was about the only way he could reach base. Not that the Yankees could get him around — their 6-1 and 1-0 losses presumably gave the team with the second-biggest payroll in 2014 a head start on reclaiming its rightful place for 2015: the team that is No. 1 in payroll if not wins.

Rays manager Joe Maddon escalated things by saying Headley had been “grazed” in the jaw. I’m guessing Maddon wouldn’t have said “grazed” if it had been his jaw that had been hit by a 96 mph fastball from Jake McGee.

The Rays are 75-80 entering play Sunday, their first non-winning season since 2007, but they’ve lost none of their spunk. And nowhere do they stand taller when next to the Yankees and Red Sox, even if their AL East rivals are always a head up because they’re standing on the pile of money they spend.

The Rays have “grazed” 55 opposing batters this year, fourth-most in the American League. Seventeen were Red Sox and Yankees. You don’t have to be an expert in fractions to know there’s something about the Yankees and Red Sox which brings a Pavlovian reaction from Rays pitchers.

The Rays’ Chris Archer has hit eight batters this year, five of them Yankees or Red Sox; Jake Odorizzi has hit five batters, four of them Yankees or Red Sox. David Price hit five batters this year, all before he was traded to Detroit, three of them Red Sox, two of them Mike Carp. (No player was probably as happy to go to a 100-loss team as Carp; he’s been hit by pitches five times this year, four by the Rays, all while he was with the Red Sox. With the Rangers, no one has touched him.)

In return, 13 Rays batters have been hit by Red Sox or Yankees, but three of them by Cesar Cabral in the same game in April and four by the remnants of the Red Sox staff in a late August game, probably as Ortiz smirked.

It makes you wonder if Girardi has it wrong. Maybe the Rays can pitch inside.

“It’s nothing to apologize for,” Maddon said in response to Girardi. “It’s just part of the game. I do understand their frustration with it and why they were upset. It ended up being what it was. … truthfully, like I said, there was no intent from us. … I understand the frustration. I get it totally.”

Pitching inside is a sensitive subject this fall, with might-have-been NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton hit in the face and Pirates MVP Andrew McCutchen getting hit with pitches as if he were a kewpie doll being stuck with pins.

Saturday McCutchen was hit in consecutive at-bats by Brewers starter Matt Garza, barely a month after he was put on the disabled list by the apparently revenge-motivated Diamondbacks after their best hitter (some would say only) Paul Goldschmidt had his season ended by an errant pitch. Saturday Garza was ejected — both benches having been warned after Pirates starter Edinson Volquez threw inside to Ryan Braun but didn’t hit him — and the Pirates fumed.

“This is what I’m going to say,” Garza said. “If people think I hit McCutchen on purpose with a 1-2 count in a game like this, then you’re just an idiot.”

You can agree with Garza and be an idiot, too. Garza was probably truthful — McCutchen started to stride into the second HBP, which even the Pirates announcers acknowledged. Perhaps it’s impossible to apply a learned judgment unless you’re capable of throwing a fastball 90 mph or hitting one. (You have to love announcers who suggest a batter should not be so quick to duck out of the way of a pitched ball. They may not be so quick to take one for the team if it was their ribs getting in the way of a fastball).

But you can understand why the Pirates might not care about Garza’s intent. Garza had hit just two batters in 158.1 innings before hitting McCutchen, their best player, twice in 4.2 innings. McCutchen is not a pincushion either.

The Pirates announcers talked about “protecting the reigning MVP,” which was about as off target as one of Garza’s pitches. Jordy Mercer, the Pirates’ .262-hitting shortstop, deserves every bit as much protection as McCutchen. When it comes to getting hit by a 90-mph fastball, all players should be equal.

There was a passage in Ball Four where author/pitcher Jim Bouton said when he was a minor-leaguer, he feared his control wasn’t as good as major league pitchers, because he couldn’t put the ball exactly where he wanted with every pitch. Then he got to the majors and found out neither could the big-leaguers.

That’s the dilemma big-league pitchers face: miss six inches inside and you hit the batter and maybe, if the benches have been warned, you get ejected. Miss six inches the other way, and the batter hits you.

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