1. Michael Pineda's smear campaign
It is blatantly obvious: You cannot spell “Pineda” without P-I-N-E (tar).
Talk about sticky situations for the Yankees. They lost Ivan Nova for the season to an elbow injury, and now they’re about to lose Michael Pineda for a couple of starts to pure, unadulterated stupidity.
Look, Pineda’s crime wasn’t that he was going to the sticky stuff to get a grip on the ball on a chilly, 53-degree Boston evening—though to be perfectly clear, yes, that is a crime too.
No, his biggest, most egregious crime was covering his neck in pine tar as if it was Coppertone SPF 50 on a day at the beach.
Especially after he was outed with pine tar in the palm of his pitching hand facing these same Red Sox in New York on April 10.
Red Sox manager John Farrell didn’t even bother calling him out then, and for good reason. Clay Buchholz loaded up in Toronto last year, and Blue Jays broadcaster Jack Morris, the former pitcher, pointed it out on the air that night. Jon Lester had goop on his glove in Game 1 of the 2013 World Series against the Cardinals. (“Rosin,” Lester explained after the television cameras offered close-ups.)
But did you see the Boston dugout just before Farrell asked plate umpire Gerry Davis to check Pineda on Wednesday? It looked like something from a sitcom. Farrell, Shane Victorino and the rest were stifling grins as if watching Sam Malone try to pitch again.
Davis actually went to the mound and scooped a finger full of pine tar off Pineda’s neck, and the shocker was that the umpire didn’t stick to the pitcher, cartoon-like, like a kid putting his tongue on a flagpole in the dead of winter.
The swift hand of justice should fall on the Yankees right-hander swiftly, possibly even setting a major league record for swiftness. He unquestionably will miss at least one start, if not two.
Precedent? MLB suspended Brendan Donnelly, then of the Angels, for 10 games in 2005 for having substance on his glove; the Rays’ Joel Peralta was socked for eight games for the same offense in 2012.
The foreign substance suddenly appeared on Pineda’s neck in the second inning, after he had served up two Boston runs in the first. That brings another burning question to the forefront: How could the Yankees have possibly let him leave the dugout looking like a criminal dying to get caught?
“I think we’re all embarrassed,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told reporters. “We as a group are embarrassed that this has taken place. I think Michael is embarrassed. I think we’re embarrassed that somehow we took the field [like] that.”
Cashman added, “We failed as an organization for somehow him being in that position. We’re scratching our head trying to figure out how that took place.”
Just don’t scratch too close to Pineda’s head. Your hand might stick.
It is no secret that pitchers throughout the game use stuff on chilly, early-season nights to help them grip the baseball. Otherwise, it can be slippery, and without perspiration, that can become an issue.
Even many hitters will tell you that they don’t mind a pitcher using a dab of pine tar at this time of year if it helps his command, because hitters don’t exactly enjoy 95 mph fastballs sailing toward their heads if a pitcher loses his grip.
The grip Pineda lost Wednesday night was on his mind, not the ball.
Michael, Michael, Michael. If you’re going to use pine tar, at least put it in the same place most pitchers do: on the inside of your belt, in the spot where you hitch up your pants when you need a little something extra.
2. Is Bryce Harper not who we thought he was?
The game is not as easy as Bryce Harper made it look all those years when he was skipping high school in search of better competition and landing a Sports Illustrated cover at 16.
It always was going to ambush him—however fleetingly—at some point on his rocket ride to superstardom.
How it finally got him—on a seemingly innocuous tap back to the pitcher—is what’s most shocking about the week’s sexiest story.
Of all of the sins Harper could have committed in the Church of Baseball...not running hard to first base? Really?
Say what you will about Harper—and many people on both sides of the stud/punk divide are eager to do just that—but lacking something as simple as full-bore hustle is the last thing you could have expected from him. I always had him as Most Likely To Follow Pete Rose. (“I’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball.”)
And I’m not alone.
Bob Schaefer is a special assistant to Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo and has been a professional scout, coach and manager for more than 40 years. He coached in the Royals system for years and twice was their interim manager (1991, 2005).
“When Bryce Harper first signed, he made a comment that George Brett was his idol,” Schaefer told me when we spoke this week. “I told Bryce, ‘I coached George Brett, and not one time did George Brett not run hard down the line. That ain’t George Brett.’
“I kid him about it all the time. It would have been easy for George not to do it at some point. I told Bryce, ‘If he’s your idol, you’d better run hard all the time like he did.’”
When Harper smashed into that Dodger Stadium wall last summer, sparking another great debate (“Should he play under more control to lessen his chance of injury?”), he fiercely laid down the gauntlet.
“I’m not going to change the way I play at all,” he told me when we talked a couple of days afterward. “I’m going to play this way forever.
“I respect the game.”
Rizzo, on the same day, told me, “I haven’t talked to him about throttling down, nor will I. I don’t want him to throttle down. That’s who he is.”
Question now becomes, is that still who Harper is?
There have been unsettling rumblings coming from D.C. this season as Harper alternately has battled aches, pains and humility.
Thomas Boswell, the greatly respected Washington Post columnist, wrote the other day of Harper’s immaturity, noting that he is prone to pouting when things don’t go his way, and that it has led to a lack of hustle. Boswell also noted suggestions from inside the organization that Harper sat out a game against Miami because he did not want to put his nine-game hitting streak on the line against ace Jose Fernandez.
Immaturity is no crime. Harper is just 21 and unquestionably has much growing up to do. Like Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, he needs some smoothing around the rough edges. But as for the Fernandez accusation, that’s troubling if true. Because that suggests Harper as a me-first guy, rather than a team-first guy.
Much as former Nats manager Davey Johnson was liked, he was the ultimate players’ manager who let a lot of things slide. There was a reason Rizzo hired Matt Williams—a methodical, emotional drill-sergeant type—to replace him. Part of the organizational thinking is that the young talent stocking the organization needs more teaching and a firmer hand.
To that degree, it is hard to jump on Williams when several players say he warned them in a meeting a few days earlier that a lack of hustle would not be tolerated.
“Matt did a hell of a job during spring training, and sometimes you’ve got to take charge,” Schaefer says. “Bryce Harper is known for hustling more than anybody. He just had a mental lapse. To let it slide wouldn’t be the right thing.
“I like what Matt did. In the long run, you win a lot of games by hustling and playing the right way. Some managers would have looked the other way.
“The worst thing wasn’t not running hard, but he peeled off. Run through the base anyway, even 80 percent.”
That last point is the sledgehammer. Yes, Harper had a strained quad at the time. Yes, the list of players who do not run hard to first base after bouncing back to the pitcher is long. And there are times when players do need to pick and choose when to take a shortcut to withstand the grind of 162 games.
But at least run through the bag.
Maybe in the end this isn’t a Manager vs. Diva story. It shouldn’t be. What it should be—no more, no less—is a moment for teaching and learning, and now everyone moves on.
“I respect the hell out of Matt Williams, but I also respect the fact that Harper did not say, ‘Hey, my leg was hurting,’” Schaefer says. “He took the punishment. No B.S., no excuses.”
As Harper moves forward undoubtedly to that glorious future that awaits, he also might want to think not only of George Brett, but of another Hall of Famer, the great Joe DiMaggio.
Someone once asked an aging DiMaggio why he always played so hard, never took a play off, even as he was growing older and the game was getting tougher.
Said DiMaggio, “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time, and I owe him my best.”
3. Instant review of instant replay
The catch/transfer rule continues to be so controversial and so wrongheaded that it now is expected to be revised in-season, and soon: One high-ranking MLB source told Bleacher Report on Thursday that change is expected within the next week. That the current (and new) strict interpretation of the rule is a disaster—as I wrote here last week—is the one thing this season that players, coaches and managers across the game unanimously agree on.
Officials from the players union and MLB executives met last week, as Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal reported, to discuss the increasingly dire situation. As Tigers manager Brad Ausmus told MLB Network Radio this week, it has to be fixed, and there has to be a time period when the ball is in the glove, under control, before it is transferred, when it is still considered an out.
On-deck Hall of Famer Tony La Russa, who spearheaded the new instant replay rules along with Joe Torre and John Schuerholz, told me in Anaheim last week that he does believe a player should complete the transfer from glove to hand before the play is ruled an out. But he also admitted the perfect storm of replay along with the crackdown of the catch/transfer rule is wreaking all kinds of havoc.
“I’ve never seen so many players drop the ball before,” La Russa groaned. “Just catch the ball!”
4. Yankees search for new transmission after losing their Nova
While CC Sabathia’s regression has dominated early talk surrounding Yankees pitching (when the subject is not Masahiro Tanaka, of course), New York’s success or failure this summer always was going to have far more to do with Nos. 3-5 in their rotation—Tanaka, Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda—than with Sabathia alone.
We know what Sabathia is now: a former flamethrower who is still very good on most nights, more inconsistent than he once was and far from dominant. What we didn’t know was whether Tanaka would live up to the hype (so far, so good) and whether Nova and Pineda would make forward progress.
Pineda continues to show promise, though he's about to face unbelievable scrutiny in his next few outings, as inquiring minds want to know whether he can succeed without pine tar. And the loss of Nova leaves another hole for the Yankees to patch.
Manager Joe Girardi called Nova a guy “we were counting on pretty heavily this year.” Without him, lefty Vidal Nuno got a spot start Sunday, and the Yankees are considering all options: moving David Phelps or Adam Warren to the rotation from the bullpen, or summoning Alfredo Aceves from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Stay tuned. The AL East is becoming more wide-open every day (and with every injury, not to mention suspension).
5. No trouble with the curve in Atlanta
Conventional wisdom: Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy went down this spring, and the Braves were supposed to be devastated.
True fact: The Braves on Tuesday led all major league pitching staffs with a 2.32 ERA.
Within that, over their first 19 games, the Braves rotation had compiled an astounding 1.52 ERA. That’s more than a run a game better than everybody else in the majors except the Cardinals rotation (2.33).
Alex Wood and Aaron Harang have been sensational, Ervin Santana remains an inspired signing and now Mike Minor is due back from the disabled list this week.
6. The swingin’—and pitchin’—A’s
Much like Atlanta in the National League, Oakland lost its projected No. 1 starter, Jarrod Parker, for the season this spring to Tommy John surgery. That bothered the A’s so much that, on Tuesday, their staff led the AL with a 2.55 ERA. And Oakland’s starters’ ERA of 2.65 topped all AL rotations.
The Athletics continue to do a phenomenal job in both procuring and developing talent, and the latest hidden gem in the Coliseum is right-hander Jesse Chavez. With a cutter he can throw to both sides of the plate, Chavez, 30, is giving new definition to the term “late bloomer” at 1-0 with a 1.38 ERA in four starts. The A’s have won each of those starts.
Oakland is Chavez’s eighth organization. Since 2003, he has been traded for Kip Wells, Akinori Iwamura, Rafael Soriano, Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth, but the sudden development of a 90 mph cutter last season is taking him to new and unexpected heights.
“He spots up, hits the glove, he doesn’t miss too often,” says A’s catcher John Jaso, who loves catching Chavez. “And he can throw anything at any time, which is nice to have on a 2 and 0 count. You don’t have to call for the fastball.”
Chavez worked 5.2 innings in an 18-inning game against the Yankees in Oakland last June 13 just after developing the cutter, a moment all in the A’s organization look back on as the beginning of what’s happening now.
“That was like an ‘aha moment’ for him,” manager Bob Melvin says. “It was, ‘I can do this.’”
And so he has.
7. This week in Cub-dom
That whitewashing in a doubleheader in Yankee Stadium last Wednesday, losing 3-0 and 2-0? It was the first time the Cubs were shut out twice in one day since June 27, 1962, against the Cardinals.
Lou Brock played that day. For the Cubs.
8. Angels taunting Angels
It’s always a kick to watch young players mature and grow into their cleats...even if they already have the raw talent and confidence of Mike Trout. And so it is that one of my favorite moments this season came one early afternoon last week in Anaheim, as a couple of Angels pitchers hit on the field in preparation for this week’s interleague series in Washington.
As Jered Weaver swung away, there was Trout, hooting and cackling from the dugout: “No pop! No pop!”
9. This just in: Johnny Damon is not retired
You may think he is, being that he hasn’t played since 2012 (and then, only 64 games for the Indians). But you would be mistaken.
“I’m still in better shape, and a better player, than most of the players out there,” Damon, 40, told Bleacher Report this week. “That’s why I haven’t announced my retirement. I’m just not waiting by the phone like I was for a few days there.”
By the way, Damon reports that his hair is “in-between” long and short these days.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.
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