Ambushed by the Astros

Pitchers pummeled by a cheating Houston lineup talk about the impact on their careers and the questions that remain.
photo of Scott MillerScott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistIN DUNEDIN, FLA.March 3, 2020

Her husband had just slipped into their apartment just outside of Austin, Texas, late that Tuesday night following a Triple-A game when the phone buzzed. With it came the jubilation of a call-up to The Show. It was May 2, 2017, and Anthony Bass' baseball career was headed back in the right direction.

Like so many other fringe players in his cleats, he was never guaranteed a big league roster spot. Instead, his place on the team was built on a foundation of blood, sweat and fears—a constant anxiety that his foothold in the majors could erode beneath him at any moment.

He had made four consecutive Opening Day rosters in San Diego (2012-13), Houston (2014) and Texas (2015), but he was never able to make it through an entire season without being dispatched to the minors. Now, he was back for more after spending the 2016 campaign pitching in Japan.

The Rangers, in Houston, asked him to make the roughly three-hour drive in time for the next day's game. So he drove through the inky blackness of the dead of night.

"I gotta go," Bass had told his wife.

"OK, I'll see you when I see you," she told him back, one of those indelible marital moments filled with pride in, and hope for, a spouse. There was so much to look forward to: Among other things, Sydney was pregnant with the couple's first child. Daughter Brooklyn would arrive that September.

One night later came another phone call. This one to Sydney, from her husband. I'm driving home, he told her. This time, his ticket to The Show had barely lasted 24 hours.

Looking back now, Anthony Bass says his wife was angrier in the moment than he was.

"I kind of felt like [the Rangers] knew what they were doing, like they just needed me for that game," Bass says. "My wife was just upset because of how they abused me, brought me up for a game and sent me back right away. She was like, 'What the heck?!'"

Little did Anthony and Sydney Bass know then what would come to light about the Astros.

In 2.2 innings that night, Bass gave up four hits and three runs, including Josh Reddick's two-run homer in the eighth. According to the website Sign Stealing Scandal, which has a game-by-game breakdown curated by Astros fan Tony Adams, the Astros only banged their trash can twice total that game, both times on a seventh-inning Bass splitter to Carlos Beltran. There were other games in which they banged far more frequently.

But we also know from the MLB investigation that Houston used other methods to communicate pitches to its hitters too, including whistling, clapping and hollering.

When the scandal broke this winter, it was Sydney who first put two and two together and asked Anthony: Hey, didn't you pitch against the Astros that year?

It was then that the gnawing started in the backs of their minds.

"Who knows what could have happened?" says Bass, who would not make another appearance for the Rangers. "Could I have stuck around longer, gotten another opportunity? That's money left on the table, pension, service time, all that stuff."

Anthony Bass felt his career was getting back on the right track when he was called up to the Rangers to face the Astros in 2017, only to be sent back to the minors after he had been roughed up in Houston.
Anthony Bass felt his career was getting back on the right track when he was called up to the Rangers to face the Astros in 2017, only to be sent back to the minors after he had been roughed up in Houston.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Dozens of pitchers scattered across the summers of 2017 and 2018 can say similar things, including several who, like Bass, were beaten back to the minors almost immediately by Astros swinging from a stacked deck.

None has gone as far, though, as veteran journeyman Mike Bolsinger, who filed a civil lawsuit against the Astros last month. While pitching for Toronto, he was bludgeoned for four runs in one-third of an inning against Houston on Aug. 4, 2017. That was the last time Bolsinger pitched in the bigs. The Astros banged the trash can in a season-high 54 plate appearances in that game—including 13 bangs when Bolsinger was on the mound.

"I was like, OK, I pitched against the Astros and got my butt ripped," Bolsinger tells B/R. "Then [this winter] I saw the trash-can bangs, and my bangs were way up there ... and I was like, that's crazy."

The collateral damage to those whose career arcs suddenly were bent the wrong way, however, goes far beyond Bolsinger, whose suit asks that the Astros be assessed $31 million in restitutionroughly, the postseason award total from '17—and donate the money to charity.

In fact, just a few lockers down from Bass in Toronto's camp this spring is a right-hander fighting for a rotation spot named Sam Gaviglio. On July 18, 2017, then pitching for Seattle, Gaviglio surrendered five earned runs over six innings to the Astros.

"Actually, I wasn't too ashamed of that outing, seeing what they were doing to some pitchers there," Gaviglio says. "But from a business aspect, it could have been my career. It could have been my last shot."

Upon being summoned to Seattle that year, Gaviglio immediately began earning a pro-rated portion of the major league minimum salary of $535,000. For six seasons in the minors before that, Gaviglio was scrounging, earning anywhere from $1,000 (low minors) to $10,000 (Triple-A) annually.

"It's kind of sad to see the [light] punishments that have been taken toward the Astros," Gaviglio says. "I can say personally I was punished in a major way because of it."

Two days after the Astros rocked him, the Mariners banished Gaviglio back to the low-rent bushes.

"The guys I feel bad for are the guys who come up for the first time and they're excited and pumped to be there, and they make their first start and guys have their signs, and they get absolutely boat-raced and get sent down and never get there again," Philadelphia's Bryce Harper, who signed a record 13-year, $330 million deal last March, says.

"Guys who lose their jobs, that's life-altering. Those are the biggest things, you know? When it is life-altering, and there's nothing you can do about it.

"You think your stuff is pretty good, and it probably is, and they're laying off stuff and hitting homers and 'What the heck just happened?' and now you're down in Triple-A and never pitch [in the majors] again."

Eight-year veteran starter Alex Cobb was ambushed by the Astros on July 31, 2017, in what by far was his worst outing of the best season of his career. But he recovered in time to sign a four-year, $57 million free-agent deal with Baltimore that winter. From the Orioles clubhouse this spring, he still shakes his head at the fate suffered by his close friend Chase Whitley that day.

After Houston battered Cobb, then with the Rays, for eight earned runs and nine hits in three innings in a 14-7 Tampa loss, Whitley surrendered three runs on four hits over three innings. The Astros were whaling away at their trash can in a total of 28 plate appearances—including 20 bangs with Cobb on the mound and 19 more against Whitley.

Alex Cobb felt he found out why he had been battered by the Astros in 2017 when a Houston player told him he was tipping his pitches, but he thinks now that the advice was nothing more than an attempt by Houston to cover up its sign-stealing scheme.
Alex Cobb felt he found out why he had been battered by the Astros in 2017 when a Houston player told him he was tipping his pitches, but he thinks now that the advice was nothing more than an attempt by Houston to cover up its sign-stealing scheme.Bob Levey/Getty Images

Whitley was optioned to the minors immediately after the final pitch that night. He at least did get called back for 10 more appearances in August and September that summer, and then he made one more in 2018 with Atlanta and was finished.

"I'd rather talk about him than me," says Whitley through a syrupy Southern drawl from his home in tiny Ranburne, Alabama (population: 409). "I was just an average guy on my best day."

Now fully retired and back to school to become a physical education teacher, Whitley is not home feeling sorry for himself. He acknowledges that he was losing his stuff and simply wasn't effective anymore by the time he got to Atlanta ("I was gawd-awful").

"Ain't nobody cares about Chase Whitley," he says by way of deflecting the story away from himself. "I get it.

"I'm not bitter by any means. It is what it is. But it is intriguing because they did hit some good pitches Alex threw that night, and they hit some good pitches I threw. They did that to everybody. It stinks, because I know how hard people worked."

Not only were the Astros devious in their "Codebreaker" methodology, but it also appears they were duplicitous even to the faces of rivals. After that start, Cobb tells B/R, one of the Astros approached, complimented him on how good his stuff was but confided that Cobb was tipping his pitches.

"He wouldn't tell me what it was," Cobb says of the Astros player, whom he declined to name. "He just told me it was something with my glove."

At the time, Cobb was happy to hear it because it seemed to answer how, in the midst of a great year and in a game in which he felt he was making good pitches, the results could have been so catastrophic.

Except the next day, after Chris Archer pitched the Rays to a 6-4 win, an Astros player FaceTimed him to tell him he was tipping his pitches, according to a story by Stephen J. Nesbitt in The Athletic.

Cobb's theory now: The Astros were intentionally trying to throw opponents off the scent of their cheating by implanting pitch-tipping in their minds.

"I don't think people realize the feeling you have after you have a bad outing," Cobb says. "As pitchers, we are very overdramatic, I think. We think our career is over after every bad outing. This was my free-agent year, so I'm living and dying on every pitch. You overreact, and you think it's over."

For some reason, Cobb says, it took him several outings that summer to erase the licking he took from his mind. And, he emphasizes, he's one of the lucky ones: He landed a big free-agent deal.

"It was tough to get through that game, and I really feel for people that didn't get that next chance to prove themselves again," he says, citing Whitley in particular. "Because one bad outing gets your mind rolling. You start thinking, Am I doing this, or am I doing that? You start tinkering. You start changing things up a little bit. Maybe my mechanics are off. And then you can really go down a bad path and create some bad habits. There's a long line of things that can go wrong.

"As much joy as they had hitting the ball around the park, they robbed some people of a lot of [sleep]."

Cobb also points out how appalling it is that the Astros' trash-can banging persisted even in the late innings of some blowouts, like the 16-7 Bolsinger game.

"That's the other thing: No mercy," Cobb says. "They didn't call it quits? Which shows they were looking to get their numbers padded. Guys are going for the MVP, going for arbitration, they want their numbers jacked up. It's a lot of selfishness.

"I would like to know if they were still banging up by 10, you know? That's disgusting."

At least, Whitley says, he wasn't pitching in the AL West at the time.

"I feel bad for the guys who weren't top-tier guys and had to face them in their division," Whitley says. "The guys who had to play them nine times a year in Houston."

It is victims like this who look at Bolsinger's suit and say, You go, Mike.

Mike Bolsinger was chased out of the majors after giving up four runs in one-third of an inning against the Astros and this year became the only pitcher to sue Houston over its efforts to steal signs in 2017 and 2018.
Mike Bolsinger was chased out of the majors after giving up four runs in one-third of an inning against the Astros and this year became the only pitcher to sue Houston over its efforts to steal signs in 2017 and 2018.Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press/Associated Press

"I think he's had a tough time doing this," says Toronto starter Chase Anderson, whose best man in his 2013 wedding was...Bolsinger. "I'm sure it's tough being in the limelight because he's not that kind of guy."

Anderson texted with Bolsinger when he heard about the suit, and he's been touched in other ways by this scandal as well. He was watching a televised Freddie Freeman interview when the Atlanta slugger was moved nearly to tears discussing how his good friend, Kris Medlen, worked for two years to come back from surgery only to make one start—for the Diamondbacks against the Astros in Arizona on May 4, 2018—get lit up and immediately retire.

Medlen says he still doesn't know for sure whether he was a victim or not in surrendering seven runs on nine hits in four innings that day.

"Neither do I, and I don't know if we'll ever know," Freeman tells B/R on the morning after having dinner with ex-teammates Medlen and Peter Moylan. "That's just the doubt that is cast over everything now. You just have no idea, and that's unfortunate."

For his part, Medlen appreciated Freeman bringing his name into a conversation he isn't even sure he should be a part of.

"I honestly loved it," Medlen says. "The fact that I was in his mind, him being the caliber of player he is and sticking up for the little guy."

That's the thing over these past few years: Beyond the Los Angeles Dodgers (beaten by Houston in the '17 World Series), New York Yankees (felled by the Astros in the '17 ALCS), Aaron Judge (runner-up to Jose Altuve in the '17 AL MVP finish) and more, there is an entire cast of "little guys" who were mowed down because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Guys who never saw the mugging coming.

Roughly a month after the Bolsinger contest, the New York Mets arrived in Houston for a series, and in the second game of a doubleheader on Sept. 2, 2017, Seth Lugo worked five solid innings before imploding in the sixth. He remembers pitching well and being in a groove, his pitch count still fairly low, and then, suddenly, everything became a blur. No video is available for that game. But the next day, the Astros banged the trash can 24 times.

"I remember being really confused after the game," Lugo says. "How did that happen? What was going on? I felt like I was making good pitches."

Something else happened afterward: Then-Mets general manager Sandy Alderson told Lugo that the club no longer would allow him to face opposing lineups a third time through the order.

Lugo argued that was extreme. The Mets told him it was to protect his elbow. Lugo told them his elbow was fine, and he wanted full games. The Mets rejected his suggestion.

Lugo made five more starts that season and then only five more in 2018 before the Mets made him a full-time reliever. He continues to work out of the bullpen today even though his preference is to start, and, like many others, he has far more questions than answers because of the Astros.

"If I would have been a five starter with a rough ERA going into arbitration, I may have made more this year," says Lugo, who avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year, $2 million deal for 2020. "Who's to say? But if I would have had a 2.50 or 3.00 ERA over the next two years, it could have cost me a couple of million dollars.

"The frustrating thing is, there's no answers. It's all just hypotheticals."

Hypothetically, the list of potential damages is endless. Former Dodger Rich Hill, speaking in Minnesota's camp, makes the case for support-staff members, such as clubhouse men and equipment managers, who lost out on World Series and playoff shares as Houston gamed the system. In 2017, the Astros' full World Series-winning share was $438,902 per man, while the losing Dodgers received $259,722. Clubs who lost earlier in the postseason made less.

Former Dodgers pitcher Rich Hill not only fell victim to the Astros in the 2017 World Series, but also wonders how much money non-players with the Dodgers lost out on in not winning the title.
Former Dodgers pitcher Rich Hill not only fell victim to the Astros in the 2017 World Series, but also wonders how much money non-players with the Dodgers lost out on in not winning the title.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

"That's the one thing that doesn't get talked about enough," Hill says. "I know, being fortunate to be in the postseason for many years, how much that means to the people who help make the everyday operations run smoothly."

Anderson works out with the Dodgers' Max Muncy in Oklahoma in the offseason, and the two had a similar conversation.

"You win the World Series or go to Game 7 of the World Series, after taxes you're getting a $250,000 or $300,000 check," Anderson says. "That's life-changing money for guys who work in the clubhouse. It can pay for your kid's college or pay off a mortgage."

Disgust and anger continue to run deep across the game in defense of the little guy, to the point where the Astros' deceit even caused a few eye rolls when Reddick spoke about receiving death threats recently.

"Play the victim, that's everybody's go-to," Cobb says. "That's PR 101. Play the victim, and people will start feeling sorry for you."

Bolsinger, 32, is home in Texas with wife Lauren and son Luke, 19 months. He is working out and still hoping to catch on with a club following two years of pitching in Japan. He misses the camaraderie of spring training and the bonds he once had.

"I don't know," he says when asked if he's fearful the suit will scare clubs away. "I don't know what it will do to me."

Back in Toronto's camp, Anderson feels for his buddy.

"I don't think he ever wanted to do this," Anderson says. "I don't think anybody wants to do this. But stuff happens."

On different schedules now, the two don't see a lot of each other these days. But, as Anderson says: "We'll be friends until the day we die. Baseball takes you different places. I'm sure some day in 20 years we'll go out for a drink or have a cigar and reminisce on the good times."

A couple of lockers down, Bass, with a good chance to win a job in the Blue Jays bullpen, is circumspect. Yes, the Astros could have taken money out of his pocket. Yes, it could have set his family back. Nevertheless, he figures, he's fortunate: He still has a uniform and the chance to earn some of it back.

"I really feel like karma comes around and gets people," Bass says. "I really do."


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.