This past weekend, before Chase Utley broke Ruben Tejada’s leg, my mom asked me a question: “Why would you intentionally hit someone with a pitch?” She had watched the Pirates-Cubs wild card game, in which a Pirates reliever plunked a Cubs batter, almost certainly on purpose. My mom is a sports fan, so her question was not exactly like that annoying kid who asks his father about investing, but the point is the same: It can help to get a fresh perspective. In trying to give an explanation—the Cubs pitcher had hit two batters earlier in the game, probably by accident, and the opposing pitcher is just expected to, I don’t know, retaliate—I considered, for the first time, that maybe the practice was unnecessary. Do Matt Harvey and the Mets feel the same way? We’ll find out tonight.
Game 3 of the National League Division Series was going to be the biggest game in Citi Field history regardless, but it’s been given more juice by Utley’s take-out slide on Saturday night in Los Angeles.
[A really long aside on that: The play was screwed up on so many levels. The Dodgers had runners on the corners with one out when Howie Kendrick hit a soft liner up the middle. Second baseman Daniel Murphy fielded it and flipped it to Tejada at second. Utley slid far wide of the bag—he could not and literally did not ever touch it—and didn’t hit the ground until after he’d made contact with Tejada. It was a collision that would get your attention if you saw it in a football game. Tejada fell on his back, immobile. His fibula had snapped.
After the game, Utley mostly repeated how he was just trying to break up the double play. That’s not an excuse for premeditated assault. Carrying his bat as he approached Tejada would have been useful in accomplishing his goal, too, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. Utley slipped in that his intent was not to hurt Tejada, as if he would have admitted otherwise. Judging by Utley’s history of dirty slides, he doesn’t care if he hurts himself. He may not have regard for his own body, but he shouldn’t assume others share his belief.
The umpires deserve special recognition. They called safe a player who not only tackled an opponent mid-play, but never did what is typically required to reach base: touch it. Utley was ruled out initially, but a replay review determined Tejada had not touched the base. The correct call: Interference on Utley, ruling him and Kendrick out and negating the run that crossed home. A less satisfying but not blatantly unjust call: invoking the “neighborhood” rule and calling Utley out. Tejada’s toe was within inches of the bag. Even nature’s smallest creatures would agree Tejada and second base were in the same neighborhood. Even if we disregard all of that—and we definitely should not do that—Utley ran off the field without having touched second base. In a postgame press conference I would have laughed at if I wasn’t so angry, MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre explained that once the ump signaled “out,” Utley not obligated to touch the base. “Explained” is a generous term here. Torre moved his mouth and words came out, but he had no idea what he was saying. Must not have had his Bigelow tea that day.]
To his credit, Torre suspended Utley for two games. [A much shorter aside: That’s nice, but the justice Mets fans seek is impossible now: Tejada’s good health and a 2-1 lead going to the eighth inning of Game 2. Instead, the Mets lost their shortstop and the game, and the best-of-five series is now tied.] Utley has appealed and will be available for tonight’s game. He might start—he’s 6 for 18 with a homer off Harvey in his career. Even if he never sees the field, there could be retribution.
[Final aside: The umpiring crew can’t undo their Los Angles mistakes, but they can butt out of any response from the Mets. If Harvey hits a batter in the back, the Dodgers will understand and the bad blood will hopefully end there. Start issuing bench warnings with the first inside fastball and the umps will have created a much bigger problem.]
The atmosphere at Citi Field is going to be electric (I’ll be there!) and Harvey has already let down some Mets fans earlier this season. Many of those same fans will be disappointed if he doesn’t hit a batter tonight. My mom will be among the very small minority who would be upset if he did.
I’m indifferent. I’d much rather see seven or eight or nine scoreless innings from him, and I never did come up with a good answer to my mom’s question. Like the suspension, a Dodger getting plunked doesn’t change what happened Saturday. If Utley’s foul play adds extra motivation to a Mets team for what is already a critical game, good. But I don’t think adrenaline overload is necessarily good for a baseball player, especially a pitcher. I hope Harvey is focused and settled, not amped and reckless.
Before Utley ran towards second base on Saturday night, the expectation for Harvey’s Game 3 start was singular: dominate. After, many are calling for more than that. In his young career, Harvey has rarely handled controversy conventionally. Taking an unorthodox if unpopular approach tonight—and not hitting anyone—shouldn’t be criticized.