The Yankees first baseman opted for the latter unapologetically, even given the aftermath. Duncan's spikes-high slide ripped a bloody gash above Rays second baseman Aki Iwamura's right knee and emptied both benches and bullpens at Progress Energy Park on Wednesday.
By the time the frenzy settled, five were ejected and several Tampa Bay players stomped to the home clubhouse, holding back little as they criticized Duncan's lack of decorum.
"What you saw today was the definition of a dirty play," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "There's no room for that in our game. It's contemptible, it's wrong, it's borderline criminal. And I cannot believe they did that."
"It was a dirty play," B.J. Upton said. "It was just flat out dirty, period."
Both benches had already been warned by umpires before the game, given events on Saturday at Legends Field in Tampa, Fla., when Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli suffered a broken right wrist in a home-plate collision. Tensions escalated when New York starter Heath Phillips was ejected in the first inning for grazing Rays third baseman Evan Longoria with an up-and-in fastball.
After Duncan's rough slide, play halted for several minutes as the two clubs engaged in shoving near second base. Right fielder Jonny Gomes charged Duncan from behind and at least one punch appeared to be thrown, as Longoria claimed one Yankee hit him in the back of the head.
Gomes, Duncan, Yankees third-base coach Bobby Meacham and Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long were all ejected.
Batting in the top of the second inning, Duncan was running out a ball hit down the left-field line that tipped off Longoria's glove for an error. Duncan was thrown out at second base by least 30 feet on a good throw from outfielder Carl Crawford, who chased the ball down in foul territory.
"The ball beat me by quite a bit," Duncan said. "When you're out, sometimes you have two things to do. You can try a weird slide around to be safe, or you can go hard into the glove. I just went hard into [Iwamura's] glove."
"Shelley told me he was taught as a player that when you're going to be out, you go after the ball," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "That's what he did."
With a bloody patch over Iwamura's right knee and last week's events still present in many minds, the Rays saw it differently. That especially included Gomes, who was running in to back up second base anyway but took exception to the hard slide.
|"What you saw today was the definition of a dirty play. There's no room for that in our game. It's contemptible, it's wrong, it's borderline criminal. And I cannot believe they did that."|
|-- Rays manager Joe Maddon|
"There's no room in baseball for that kind of stuff," Rays closer Troy Percival said. "Ty Cobb's been gone a long time."
Maddon said emphatically that Duncan should be suspended, while Girardi said he did not believe Duncan would be. The umpiring crew declined comment to a pool reporter after the game, but it is believed the league office will review videotape of the game, which was not televised.
"That was a blatant attempt to hurt Aki, and it was set up," Maddon said. "It was planned, it was premeditated. I mean, I don't know what's the difference between that and a high stick in hockey. But it was that bad."
The Duncan incident might not have taken place at all if Phillips had not been ejected in the first inning. Yet emotions have been running high between the Yankees and Rays since Saturday, when infielder Elliot Johnson lowered his shoulder into Cervelli in the ninth inning of a Tampa Bay victory.
Despite speaking to reporters on Sunday and saying the Spring Training intensity level would rise as a result of the Cervelli collision, Duncan scoffed at claims that he had planned out the play.
"When I'm out there playing, I like to play hard," Duncan said. "I try to play as hard as I can. I never in my mind think about sending a message to the other team. They see me playing hard every single day."
Aware of the recent history, home-plate umpire Chad Fairchild was prepared to give a quick thumb at the first signs of escalation. Girardi vehemently protested Phillips' ejection, at one point raising his hands to the air. Scott Patterson relieved Phillips with two outs in the first inning.
"It wasn't intentional at all," Phillips said. "I was [surprised] because I didn't really think the ball hit him at first. I told [the umpire] I was trying to throw a fastball inside and it got away from me."
"He wasn't even coming close," catcher Jorge Posada said. "If he wanted to hit him, he would have hit him. The ball just grazed him. You don't throw at somebody with [runners on] first and third and two outs."
Phillips was starting Wednesday in place of left-hander Andy Pettitte, who was scratched with tendinitis in his pitching forearm. He is one of the contenders to make the Yankees' bullpen as a left-handed reliever, along with several other candidates.
"You can't make a club hitting a guy or getting ejected," Phillips said.
The events could erase what has been a mostly peaceful American League East coexistence between the Yankees and Rays, who meet 18 times during the regular season. Players on both teams thought that more unfinished business could linger in the budding rivalry.
"Probably, but I hope not," Gomes said. "We're here to play nine innings of baseball. It's baseball. This isn't boxing or fighting or anything. So hopefully it won't. But to tell you the truth, I kind of doubt it [is over]. I just hope nobody gets hurt."
"We'll see," Posada said. "I have no idea. I can't tell you what's going to happen. I think we'll play the game a little harder. I think it will be a little different from now on."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.