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Column | John Romano

Tampa Bay Rays' plunking of Kevin Youkilis was necessary

Boston’s Kevin Youkilis winces after taking a David Price pitch in the shoulder in the first inning.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Boston’s Kevin Youkilis winces after taking a David Price pitch in the shoulder in the first inning.

ST. PETERSBURG — The result mattered. No reason to pretend otherwise.

The Red Sox won the game, won the series and expanded their lead on the Rays in the American League East. If you are a bottom-line person, that's as clear-cut as it gets.

But if you believe there is more to a 162-game season than an avalanche of box scores, then you might have applauded a pitching performance that was less than ideal.

For of the 106 pitches David Price threw in a laborious five-inning outing, there was one that was far more meaningful than the rest.

Before any runs had crossed the plate and any words could be spoken, Price hit Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis in the shoulder with a fastball in the first inning.

Understand, it had nothing to do with a winning home run Youkilis hit Wednesday night. It had everything to do with Youkilis crossing a line, both literally and figuratively, on a meaningless ground ball Tuesday night.

That was when Youkilis kicked Rays first baseman Casey Kotchman on a play that was, at the least, suspicious looking.

"It's not uncommon when a pitcher pitches inside that a hitter can get hit on occasion," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It's tantamount to a runner running to first base, and on occasion he may step on a guy's leg."

So was it payback? Was it meant to be a message? Was it an act of solidarity?

Those answers are not important.

It was necessary, and that's what matters.

"If something happens and the next inning somebody gets hit, you pretty much understand what it's for," Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. "Nobody really talks about it. It's just something that's been a part of the game for a long time.

"And I don't know if Dave's was intentional or not, but there are certain ways to handle things."

In this case, it was a question of accountability. And perhaps justice.

To start with, you have a player of uncommon ability in Youkilis. You also have a player with a reputation for competing with a bit of an edge and acting cranky when things are not going his way.

On Tuesday night, Youkilis had already struck out, hit into a pair of double plays and failed to drive in five runners when he came up in the ninth with the Rays leading 4-0.

When he bounced another ball to third base, Youkilis inexplicably went far inside the baseline on his way to first. He stretched to land on the base with his right foot, and his left foot kicked Kotchman squarely above his left ankle.

Opinions varied in the Rays clubhouse about Youkilis' intent. Kotchman was emphatic that it was not done on purpose. Others were convinced it was intentional. And some people thought it was shady, but not obviously dirty.

So why was it necessary for Youkilis to go down?

Because perceptions matter.

Because slights must be addressed, and dignity must be acknowledged. Because every player in the clubhouse needs to feel as if 24 other guys are willing to protect him.

"If the pitch was intentional, of course we would appreciate that," Rays shortstop Sean Rodriguez said. "I don't know if it was or it wasn't, I don't know what he was thinking. But I know our pitchers would do something on our account without anybody having to ask them. Our pitchers are like that. They'll back you up."

As much as the play itself seemed over the top, Youkilis' reaction was considered even more damning.

He supposedly muttered "My bad" on his way past a fallen Kotchman, but did not appear even a little concerned about taking out the leg of a former teammate.

The next day, Youkilis continued to act as if it was no big deal, saying his "toe kind of just glanced over the top of him." Kotchman, meanwhile, was sporting an ugly bruise and taking anti-inflammatory medicine to reduce the swelling.

Youkilis said after Thursday's game that he did not think Price was throwing at him intentionally but said he was annoyed that the pitch was high.

Price immediately stepped toward the plate, and Youkilis glared back but no words were exchanged.

Plate umpire and crew chief Gary Darling seemed to acknowledge the intent of the pitch when he warned both benches that there would be no retaliation.

Darling, not known for his sunny disposition, abruptly dismissed questions afterward about issuing a warning so quickly.

Youkilis seemed to acknowledge the Red Sox might have liked to have retaliated themselves if Darling hadn't intervened.

"That's a little too early to issue warnings in my mind. It's not the way the game is played," Youkilis said. "Doesn't make it fair for us."

On the other hand, the Red Sox and Rays have another 13 games to go.

Tampa Bay Rays' plunking of Kevin Youkilis was necessary 06/16/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 17, 2011 7:03am]
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