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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Retaliation long a part of baseball antics

D-backs' drilling of McCutchen latest in series of questionable hit-by-pitches

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Retaliation long a part of baseball antics play video for Retaliation long a part of baseball antics

MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

It's not what the D-backs did Saturday night that's so troubling. It's how they went about it.

Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen showed up at Chase Field figuring he might get drilled after D-backs first baseman Paul Goldschmidt suffered a broken left hand a night earlier.

Whether Pirates reliever Ernesto Frieri hit Goldschmidt on purpose or not is almost beside the point. Somewhere in baseball's sometimes outdated book of unwritten rules, it says that an eye-for-an-eye strategy is appropriate.

That's especially true in Arizona after D-backs general manager Kevin Towers said last offseason he'd like to see his club get more serious about protecting its own. In his mind, that means retaliating when an Arizona player is hit by a pitch.

Whether that's a legitimate definition of protection is another matter. Towers clearly believes that teams will be less inclined to throw at Arizona players if they understand it means one of their own is going to get it.

Would this kind of thing make the Diamondbacks a more competitive team? Actually, it might lead to a closer group. More on that later.

Here's the problem. Pitchers are bigger and stronger than ever these days. They throw harder and don't always have pinpoint control.

So, advocating this kind of frontier justice comes with risks. If one player winds up seriously hurt because of this mentality, it will not have been worth it.

Goldschmidt said he didn't think the pitch that broke his hand was intentional. Frieri pointed out that he has a 7.34 ERA and has just been traded from the Angels to the Pirates. Rather than put another guy on base, he said he's looking for ways to get a couple more outs.

Still, McCutchen knew he might be a target. If Frieri got Arizona's best player, it seemed logical that Pittsburgh's best might get it.

McCutchen stepped to home plate in the first inning braced for something. He didn't get it. Nor did he get in the third, sixth or eighth inning. He didn't get it in the ninth, either, at least not immediately.

D-backs reliever Randall Delgado threw a 95-mph fastball up and in. He threw a slider down and away. And then, just when it seemed that hitting McCutchen was the last thing Delgado would be thinking about, he got him in the back with a 95-mph fastball.

It was as if Delgado wanted to put McCutchen in the most vulnerable position possible, to get him completely in the flow of the game, and then drill him. This had the feel of doing more than sending a message. It was wrong and dangerous.

If you haven't watched the video, it's gruesome. Delgado got him solidly. McCutchen went down hard. It's a reminder how dangerous this kind of stuff is. In the risk/reward assessment, it simply makes no sense.

Plate umpire Ron Kulpa immediately threw Delgado out of the game. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle hurried onto the field to escort McCutchen to first base.

Part of Hurdle probably wanted to keep McCutchen from going after Delgado. But part of him surely was terrified that his best guy had gotten seriously injured in the heat of a pennant race.

The Pirates have furiously scratched and clawed their way back into contention. They're a mentally tough team, a resilient and exciting team. In short, they're a team a lot like their best player.

Was the risk worth it for the D-backs? Is frontier justice still appropriate in 2014? If retaliation is necessary, why not just get it over with?

Then the message would have been sent, and everyone could have moved on. Everyone would have understood what had just happened. Maybe they wouldn't have agreed, but they would have understood.

There's plenty of history. Teams take protecting their best players seriously. That has been part of baseball for more than a century.

As barbaric as it might sound to those outside the clubhouses, it is a legitimate part of the game.

Roger Clemens endeared himself to hundreds of teammates through the years. If you got one of his, he was going to get one of yours.

Once when a Red Sox hitter got drilled in the first inning, Clemens was pulled aside by his manager, Kevin Kennedy.

"Don't retaliate," he told him. "You could wreck our bullpen for a week."

Clemens nodded.

Kennedy went to see plate umpire Tim McClelland between innings.

"Don't react to the first thing you see," Kennedy told him. "Roger has assured me he's not going to retaliate."

Clemens walked out to the mound and hit the first guy he faced. McClelland didn't eject him, and that was the end of it.

Later, when Kennedy asked Clemens why he'd defied his instructions, Clemens shrugged.

"My guys are going to know I've got their backs," he said.

Kennedy understood.

When Rick Sutcliffe pitched for the Orioles, he hit a guy to put the tying run on base in the bottom of the ninth inning in Anaheim.

He was answering for something that happened in the top of the first inning. His teammates never guessed he'd risk losing the game by putting the potential tying run on base.

Sutcliffe did what he saw as the right thing, and that's one of many reasons he was as admired a teammate as baseball has had.

On the other hand, when a young pitcher named Roy Oswalt didn't retaliate one night after a couple of Astros had gotten drilled, he got an earful from one of his new teammates.

"Don't worry about us," Craig Biggio told him. "Just take care of yourself."

If Oswalt didn't know the meaning of protecting his teammates, he did after that.

Not every team sees it that way.

Earl Weaver's Orioles were never much for this kind of stuff. Jim Palmer, Mike Flanagan, etc., believed the best strategy was to execute the next pitch and win the game.

They saw the macho games as dumb, and perhaps a little dangerous. They thought winning the game was the ultimate revenge. Hey, there's a thought.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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