There were two more no-hitters this past week. Every division race is tight. Shohei Ohtani is doing what seems impossible and Albert Pujols joined the Dodgers.
But the hottest topic in baseball was a 76-year-old manager fuming about a 28-year-old rookie having the temerity to hit a home run.
When it comes to shooting itself in the foot, baseball never misses.
Imagine an NBA coach admonishing a player for entertaining the crowd with a creative dunk in the final minutes of a lopsided game.
You can’t. That would be ridiculous.
But when Rookie of the Year candidate Yermin Mercedes of the White Sox swung at a 3-and-0 pitch and homered off the Twins’ Willians Astudillo on Monday night, it set off days of controversy.
Because the White Sox were leading, 15-4, at the time and had a position player on the mound, Chicago manager Tony La Russa wanted Mercedes to take a pitch.
“I took several steps from the dugout onto the field, yelling, ‘Take, take, take,’” La Russa said. “The way he was set up, it looked to me like he was going to swing.
“I was upset because that’s not a time to swing 3-0. He missed a 3-0 take sign. With that kind of lead, that’s just sportsmanship and respect for your opponent.
“He made a mistake. There will be a consequence he has to endure here within our family.”
Consequences to endure for hitting a home run. Has it really come to that?
According to the vaunted unwritten rules of baseball, Mercedes could have swung at a 3-and-1 pitch without disrespecting the Twins. But 3 and 0 was forbidden.
Meanwhile, are people really paying close attention to the count in a 15-4 game?
Astudillo is a stout utility player whose nickname is La Tortuga — The Turtle. He threw a looping 47-mile-per-hour pitch that Mercedes crushed. Is that really so awful?
“Big mistake,” La Russa said. “The fact that he’s a rookie, and excited, helps explain why he just was clueless. But now he’s got a clue.”
La Russa’s age isn’t the issue here. Old-school sensibilities are.
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, who is 39, said he was surprised by Mercedes swinging.
“Those things still happen in this game, and we have to deal with it,” Baldelli said.
They did. On Tuesday, Twins reliever Tyler Duffey threw behind Mercedes in the seventh inning. He was ejected, as was Baldelli.
Duffey was later suspended for three games and Baldelli for one.
La Russa was fine with Minnesota throwing behind Mercedes.
“I didn’t have a problem with how the Twins handled that,” he said.
White Sox pitcher Lance Lynn came to the defense of Mercedes that night.
“The way I see it, for position players on the mound, there are no rules,” he said. “Let’s get the damn game over with. And if you have a problem with whatever happens, then put a pitcher out there. Can’t get mad when there’s a position player on the field and a guy takes a swing.”
La Russa shut down that talk quickly.
“Lance has a locker; I have an office,” he said.
Via Instagram, White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson threw his support to Mercedes.
“The game wasn’t over!” he wrote. “Keep doing you big daddy.”
La Russa is not the best messenger about rules, unwritten or otherwise. He left a pitcher as the runner on second base to start the 10th inning of a game earlier this month because he didn’t know it was permissible to use the player preceding the pitcher in the batting order.
Mercedes may have been a little overeager. But can you blame him? He’s a career minor leaguer who unexpectedly made the team out of spring training and hit .358 with a .960 OPS through his first 38 games this season.
He’s realizing his dream. Now this happens.
“I’m going to play like that. I’m Yermin. I can’t be another person because if I change it, everything is going to change,” Mercedes told reporters. “We’re just having fun. It’s baseball.”
The White Sox went into the weekend with the best record in the American League. They’re too talented to let this get in the way. But this underscores the potential pitfalls of bringing La Russa out of retirement to manage a team with some players more than 50 years younger.
La Russa is a Hall of Fame manager. But he was out of uniform for nine years and what’s accepted around the game has changed. Players are more expressive and less inclined to accept groupthink.
So, what can be done?
A 10-run mercy rule would extinguish such situations in the first place. It’s hard to envision lopsided games being called, but then who ever thought extra innings would start with a runner on second base?
“I’m still not saying I’m for it. I’m just saying it’s worth discussing,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “Because then you don’t have to worry about, ‘I’m six runs up, am I allowed to steal? Is this going to make this guy mad?’ No, we’re just playing to get to that point.”
Red Sox manager Alex Cora stayed clear of the subject when asked if he would tell one of his hitters to take a pitch in a similar situation.
“Good question,” he said. “I’ll leave it at that. We’ve had some games like that, we decided what we decided to do. One thing for sure, we keep it in the clubhouse.
“That’s the most important thing and I don’t think it’s about respecting the game or disrespecting the game. I think the game is in a different stage right now. We see so many position players pitching compared to a few years ago. I mean, we’re seeing position players pitch in the seventh inning. So, it’s just unfortunate that it’s a topic.”
La Russa was a special adviser with the Red Sox from 2017-19. Cora considers him a friend and mentor and certainly wasn’t going to take sides.
That’s understandable. I got to know La Russa a little when he was with the Red Sox and learned a lot about the game from him. He’s a charitable, caring person.
But at some point, everybody around baseball will have to make a choice. As MLB works to maintain its position in the modern entertainment marketplace, rookies being chastised for breaking an antiquated code of conduct doesn’t help.
“Let the kids play,” was the slogan MLB came up with a few years ago.
It’s more like let the game breathe. Mercedes was just having a little fun.
PRESSURE IS ON
Vazquez has faith in Rodriguez
Eduardo Rodriguez is scheduled to face the Phillies on Sunday. He was 4-0 with a 3.52 ERA in his first four starts before going 1-2, 6.00 in the next four.
Christian Vázquez, who has caught all eight starts, doesn’t see anything amiss with Rodriguez’s mechanics. He believes it’s more of a mental issue.
“He wants to be perfect. He wants to throw a no-hitter in one inning,” Vazquez said. “For me, he’s not locating his pitches well. He’s working at it, and he’ll get better.
“He’s trying too hard. He knows he’ll be a free agent. But he’ll get better. He needs to be the Eddie he was before.”
Rodriguez is 28 with a wife and two kids. A good season would set him up for a major contract that would take him into his 30s and provide lifetime security.
He’s 37-13 with a 3.92 ERA since the start of the 2018 season. With MLB bouncing back financially from the pandemic, Rodriguez could be in a strong position.
Trevor Bauer, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer, Noah Syndergaard, and Justin Verlander will be free agents after the season or have the ability to opt out of their deals.
Rodriguez doesn’t have the accolades they do. But he’s a reliable lefthander who has performed well in a big market and has playoff experience. Whether it’s with the Red Sox (which he would prefer) or another team, he should have good options.
“It’s tough when you miss a whole season, but he looks strong to me and his velocity will get there,” Vazquez said. “I keep telling him to relax and be himself.”
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ The Cubs, like the Sox, haven’t reached 85 percent of their Tier 1 players and staff being vaccinated. That’s the threshold for MLB to relax protocols. But beyond that, it also lessens the chances of an outbreak that could ruin the season.
General manager Jed Hoyer doesn’t believe the Cubs will get there and said it was “a real competitive advantage we’re going to miss.”
Red Sox officials have the same fears.
“The more players are vaccinated, and therefore you eliminate the contact-tracing element of [protocols]. It eliminates risk. So eliminating risk is a competitive advantage,” Hoyer said.
“Injuries can be avoidable, but sometimes they’re not. Your season can get derailed when you have injuries, and that’s part of this job. But I feel this is one that can be avoided, and we’re not able to avoid it.”
As with any group of 100 people, baseball teams have cultural and political differences when it comes to vaccines. Fifteen teams have hit 85 percent, but others are dealing with more holdouts than expected.
▪ The Sox have the fourth overall pick of the draft and are making sure to get as many eyes as possible on the top players available. GM Brian O’Halloran was in Mississippi last weekend to see Vanderbilt play Mississippi and get a look at righthanders Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter.
Rocker, Leiter, Texas high school shortstop Jordan Lawler, and California high school shortstop Marcelo Mayer are generally considered the top four prospects, although some scouts would put Louisville catcher Henry Davis in that mix.
Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom hasn’t been on the road scouting amateurs yet but plans to be soon.
▪ Bobby Dalbec hit .174 with one home run and a .507 OPS in his first 26 games. But the Sox stayed with him and it’s paying off.
Dalbec hit .316 with a 1.103 OPS and four runs in his next 11 games. As was the case in his journey through the minors, he’s figuring out how pitchers attack him.
If Dalbec hits 25 homers, drives in 75 runs, and plays above-average defense at first base, the strikeouts won’t matter.
Back up the truck in Anaheim?
The Angels were 18-22 before Mike Trout was lost for 6-8 weeks with a Grade 2 strain in his right calf. Baseball has had a rash of hip, quadriceps, and calf injuries this season and Trout is the latest to land on the injured list.
With Trout out for an extended period, whatever slim chance the Angels had of making the postseason is down to nearly zero. That would make seven years outside of the playoffs for the greatest player of his generation.
As incredible as Shohei Ohtani has been, opposing pitchers can work around him now.
Over the course of his career, the Angels are 34 games over .500 with Trout and 25 games under without him.
The Angels have two choices: Persevere and try to stay in the mix until Trout returns or make as many trades as possible to reload for next season and beyond.
Manager Joe Maddon spoke positively about getting back in the race. But his pitching is not close to playoff caliber. The Angels have the worst ERA in baseball.
Trout turns 30 in August. There’s time to build a team around him that can make the World Series. At some point the Angels have to commit to that.
First-year GM Perry Minasian bolstered the roster over the winter with free agents signed to short-term deals. If trading Steve Cishek, Raisel Iglesias, Jose Quintana, Justin Upton, Tony Watson, or anybody else helps that cause, why not?
The Dodgers, who have a $266.9 million luxury-tax payroll, went bargain hunting. They signed 41-year-old Albert Pujols after he was released by the Angels and Yoshi Tsutsugo after he was released by the Rays. The Dodgers are responsible for only the prorated minimum salary on both players, about $430,000. “It’s surreal and I don’t use that word very often,” said manager Dave Roberts about having Pujols on his roster. “But it fit, and it looked normal.” Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times asked Roberts if he could beat Pujols in a footrace. “I would say yes,” the 48-year-old Roberts said. Pujols drove in four runs in his first four games with the Dodgers, who needed help against lefties … The Dodgers now have four former MVPs on their roster: Pujols, Cody Bellinger, Mookie Betts, and Clayton Kershaw. They’re the first team with four MVPs since the 1996 Red Sox had Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens, Kevin Mitchell, and Mo Vaughn. They finished 85-77 … Chris Davis will miss the entire season for the Orioles after undergoing surgery on his left hip. He’ll be 36 next season and in the final year of his contract. You have to wonder if Baltimore will release him and move on. Davis has hit .185 since 2017 … Corey Kluber’s no-hitter on Wednesday was the sixth of the season, one short of the record. That was last done in 2012. Kluber threw the 14th complete game of the season. Six were no-hitters. At this rate it will take a perfect game to impress anybody … As pitchers chase strikeouts, they’re losing control. There have been an average of 0.47 hit batters per game, well above the record rate of 0.32 in 2012. Wild pitches (0.40 per game) also are at record levels. To use the Red Sox as an example, they went into the weekend with 24 wild pitches in 45 games, four fewer than in 60 games last season … Happy birthday to Reggie Cleveland, who is 73. The righthander pitched for the Red Sox from 1974-78, appearing in 150 games. Cleveland was acquired from the Cardinals as part of a five-player deal. He was a starter with St. Louis but pitched in a variety of roles for the Sox and averaged 188 innings in his first four seasons. Cleveland was the first Canadian pitcher to start a World Series game (Game 5 in 1975) and his 105 victories rank fourth among Canadians. Only Ferguson Jenkins (284), Ryan Dempster (132), and Kirk McCaskill (106) have more. Kevin Romine is 60. He had 158 hits for the Sox from 1985-91. His sons Andrew (283) and Austin (279) surpassed that in their careers. Both are in the Cubs organization this season.