ST. PETERSBURG — There are two things you need to understand about this ugliness between the Rays and Yankees.
No. 1, it’s not over. I would be surprised if a Rays pitcher does not pick an opportune moment to put a fastball in the ribs of some innocent New York hitter this weekend. More importantly, I think the Rays clubhouse would be seriously disappointed if it doesn’t happen.
No. 2, it’s not about bloodlust. It’s not about pride or machismo or vengeance. At this point, it’s about the 13 hitters in the Tampa Bay clubhouse knowing they can depend on their 13 pitchers to protect them in situations such as this.
And, yes, it’s a shame that it’s gotten to this point. This has been percolating since late in the 2018 season and it should have been settled by now. But the Yankees keep hitting Rays hitters and no one — not MLB officials and not Rays pitchers — have done enough to end it.
That’s not an opinion, by the way. The facts pretty much back it up.
Once you get past the nastiness of what occurred in September 2018 — when the Rays retaliated for their hitters getting plunked in three consecutive games by throwing an ill-advised fastball near the head of then-Yankees catcher Austin Romine — this has been a one-sided war.
Since 2018, the Yankees have hit 24 Rays with pitches. The Rays have hit 16 Yankees. That’s a pretty significant difference. Moreover, the most dangerous incident of all, when Aroldis Chapman threw a 101-mph pitch behind Mike Brosseau’s head, isn’t even included in those numbers.
And New York pitchers have now hit a Rays batter with a pitch in six consecutive regular-season games dating to last year.
Pffft, you say. It’s part of the game.
Yes, except the Yankees staff has hit fewer batters with pitches than any team in baseball the past three seasons. So against every other team, the Yankees hit a batter one out of every 3.2 games. Yet seven Tampa Bay players have been hit in the past six Yankee games. Based on their normal average, it would usually take the Yankees 22 or 23 games to hit that many batters.
That’s not a fluke and that’s not an aberration. That is intimidation and that is intent.
“We don’t have problems with any other team,” said Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, whose 2018 season was ended when he was hit by a pitch from New York’s Masahiro Tanaka. “We were hoping we could turn the page going into this year and, obviously, the same things happened.”
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MLB officials had an opportunity to end this last season with the Chapman episode, but blew it. A month before Chapman threw at Brosseau, Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly threw a similar pitch at Houston’s Alex Bregman and was, ultimately, suspended five games. Basically, MLB sent the message that Houston was not going to be fair game for everyone after the World Series cheating incident.
Yet Chapman only was suspended for three games, had it reduced to two, then was allowed to serve his penalty in 2021. So Kelly lost five games in a 60-game season, and Chapman lost two games in a 162-game season.
But that may not be the biggest disappointment in the Rays clubhouse.
For more than a century, baseball players have policed themselves. You hit my cleanup hitter, I’m going to hit yours. You hit my shortstop, I’m going to hit yours. It doesn’t even have to be an obviously intentional situation, it’s just understood that you need to be more careful or your own hitter is going to pay.
That kind of frontier justice has been noticeably absent in Tampa Bay.
Since 2018, Rays hitters have been plunked 207 times while their pitchers have only hit 144 batters. That disparity of 63 hit-batsmen is second only to Oakland during that period.
I’m not suggesting Rays pitchers need to turn into headhunters. A fastball, after all, can be a dangerous weapon. But there is a way to send a tit-for-tat message without risking serious injury by hitting a player in the thigh, or the rump, or the ribs. C.C. Sabathia did that to Jesus Sucre in 2018 after the Romine incident, and the Rays accepted it for what it was.
Maybe the Rays have had too many young pitchers, or maybe they’ve had too many marginal guys hanging on to their careers. Maybe they’ve had so much turnover on the pitching staff, there isn’t anyone to take on that role.
But I guarantee you, Rays hitters have been waiting for someone to step up. Joey Wendle got hit in the helmet and Austin Meadows was nearly hit in the head during the recent Yankees series. Strange as it sounds, you could make an argument that Rays hitters are being put in added danger because opposing teams feel as if they can throw inside with impunity.
“I feel like we very easily could have done something about it to stick up for our guys, but we’re trying to work past all this as well,” Kiermaier said.
Sometime this weekend, I would expect a Rays pitcher to take care of that. I bet Rays hitters expect that, too.
I wouldn’t even be surprised if Yankees hitters are expecting it.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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