They’re named after baby bears. Thursday night, they behaved like babies. And one of the infants in the middle of it, who actually began as one of the field’s diplomats, still insists on taking the low road.
“You’re up 7-2, Lendy Castillo’s pitching, it’s 3-0,” harrumphed Chicago Cubs catcher Steve Clevenger. “You don’t swing in that situation. Things happen.”
Let’s see. It was the fifth inning. The Washington Nationals, who’ve already played with a little more than derring-do to build that 7-2 lead, have the bases loaded, two out, and Jayson Werth at the plate. Castillo, a Rule 5 player who isn’t used much otherwise, hoping to impress his brass, but not exactly doing a fine job of that thus far, has fallen behind Werth 3-0.
The fifth inning. Not the eighth. Not the ninth. Four more innings to go. Did nobody teach Castillo, Clevenger, or any of these Cubs that they play nine innings in real baseball? No wonder the Cubs are going into the 105th year of their rebuilding effort.
Some of what’s likely to be forgotten about Thursday night is Kurt Suzuki whacking a three-run bomb to support Jordan Zimmermann in a nice bounceback start, punching out nine in seven innings’ work; or, the two-run bomb Adam LaRoche would hit not long after everyone went back to his dugout. None of what’s likely to be forgotten, and I notice surfing around that the Cubs don’t have as many defenders as they’d probably like to have this time, is the Cubs looking, acting, and talking like a bunch of four year olds.
Thursday night’s Cub starter, Justin Germano, made that clear enough. “When you have circumstances like that, you can take it like that—for yourselves to know that we’re not going to let guys run over us,’’ he told the Chicago Sun-Times. ‘‘And if we’ve got to make them uncomfortable in the box, then that’s what we’ve got to do—not totally going after somebody but just trying to make them aware not to be uncomfortable.”
If we’ve got to make them uncomfortable?
These Cubs couldn’t make a Little League team uncomfortable. Germano was talking over his head for a guy who’d been slapped silly for six earned runs (seven overall) in four innings’ work including Suzuki’s blast and, in the fourth, Bryce Harper’s Flying Wallendas-like infield hit with first and second, which allowed Suzuki to score with Werth and Harper moving up further on Starlin Castro’s miscue and scoring—Harper included, on another round of fancy foot and headwork measuring the play and the throw in—off Ryan Zimmerman’s single.
And Germano’s going to sound the charge against guys running over these Cubs?
Clevenger’s major league career to date has been a small cup of coffee with the Cubs in 2011, good for one double and a run scored in five plate appearances, before a 2012 that shows, thus far, sixty games, a .276 on-base percentage, fielding percentages and range factors below the National League average for catchers, and a -0.8 wins above a replacement level player. In early August, with his playing time upped since Geovanny Soto was traded to Texas, the rook got himself tossed after bellowing, with swearing, at ump Jeff Nelson over a pitch call while batting against Cincinnati.
Yep, he’s the one to show the world the Cubs aren’t going to take the Nats’ chazerei lying down. Clevenger, the Chicago Sun-Times noted about the August toss, “is learning about major-league demeanor as much as hitting and working behind the plate.” Apparently, he’s a slow learner. Maybe if the commissioner’s office hands him, Castillo, and Cubs bench coach Jamie Quirk (about whom more anon) suspensions, he’ll get a little closer to his diploma.
So Werth took a big cut on 3-0 with the ducks on the pond in the fifth. Where I and just about every other baseball watcher comes from they call 3-0 a hitter’s count. Would the Cubs have been offended less if Werth had had the decency to wait until 3-1 before taking a cut?
Clevenger took time to switch mitts when a lace broke on his game piece. During that time, as he went to the Cubs’ dugout to find its replacement, Quirk and a few possible other Cub pine-pony riders started barking toward the Nats, third base coach Bo Porter in particular. Porter didn’t exactly take kindly to the barking, but he strode almost calmly toward the Cub dugout’s railing, provoking both benches to empty for the first time, though nothing much more than that happened just yet.
It almost seems forgotten that Werth skied to right for the side after order was restored the first time. Certainly it wasn’t necessarily predestination that Harper should lead off the bottom of the sixth. He’d only had a huge hand in the Nats’ Wednesday night 9-1 thrashing, with a pair of bombs. Harper had also been 4-for-8 in the first three games, not to mention turning a double into a triple and a run scored plus an infield hit before he batted in the sixth Thursday.
But by God Castillo and Clevenger were going to send the kid a little reminder of who the men were around here. Castillo threw the first pitch of the inning at Harper’s belt on the hip side. Harper bent out of the way like an architect’s compass. Clevenger moved not. a. muscle. as the pitch sailed past Harper and to the Nationals Park backstop. The two Cubs should only be grateful plate ump Jerry Layne—who helped Clevenger nudge Harper away from thoughts of having a mano-a-mano showdown with Castillo at the mound—didn’t throw them out of the game right then and there.
Only when Harper took a couple of steps forward to object to the no-questions-asked purpose pitch did Clevenger rise out of his crouch and step forward, looking to all the world like a peacemaker as he urged Harper back, followed by Werth and Ryan Zimmerman hustling quickly to the plate area to protect their “kid brother,” as pitcher Gio Gonzalez would call him.
You could understand the Cubs’ frustrations. The Nationals slapped them around like bowling pins in the set’s first three. Until Harper got bent the Nats had been on a feeding frenzy including and especially a whopping twelve home runs in the first three games and six on Wednesday night alone. Lots of players don’t hit twelve home runs in a season. Some don’t hit that many in a career.
What you couldn’t understand, of course, is why a kid pitcher who’s been walking six per nine innings thus far, with an ERA that looks like the average price of a compact disc album, and a kid catcher who isn’t exactly making that big an impression behind the dish or at the plate, are going to teach these rapacious Nats a lesson in manners by throwing at anyone. Never mind a Bryce Harper who’s one teenager that doesn’t know the meaning of throttling back when it comes to playing major league baseball.
“It’s really frustrating,” Clevenger drawled in the clubhouse. “They’ve been swinging the bat well all series, you can’t do nothing about that. You try to make some pitches in, and things like that happen.”
If all it was was trying to make a pitch inside, Clevenger wouldn’t have sat like a catatonic as the pitch bent Harper and sailed to the backstop without so much as waving his mitt even to look like he was trying to spear it. If you’re going to throw at someone with plausible deniability, protecting your pitcher includes making it look, all the way, like a pitch that just got away. Wave at it. Lunge at it. Anything but sitting still. It betrays you every time.
Somewhere in the milling and mewing that followed immediately, Clevenger, who swears he was still trying to play peacemaker, managed to swing an open hand at a Nat—possibly Ian Desmond, who happened to stumble back and knock umpire Bill Miller down accidentally, Desmond helping Miller up post haste—before trying a shove against hulking Nat Michael Morse. A Cub relief pitcher, Manny Corpas, could be seen in one of the few open spaces in the melee jawing and pointing at a Nat or two. Clevenger, Corpas, and Nats relief corpsman Miguel Gonzalez were thrown out of the game.
Layne left no question who he thought was to blame for touching off the entire evenings’ rumble. He hung it on Quirk in the fifth, saying the bench coach’s “screaming obscenities” at Porter was the pouring of the powder into the keg.
“Here we are in the fifth inning,” Nats manager Davey Johnson said after the game. “We’re in a pennant race, we’re going to swing 3-0, we’re going to do everything. We ain’t stopping trying to score runs. Certainly a five-run lead at that time is nothing. I think it was the bench coach’s frustration in us handing it to them for a couple days. If they want to quit competing and forfeit, then fine. But we’re going to keep competing.”
“It’s probably one of the biggest butt-whuppings I’ve ever gotten in my career, as a coach or player,” said Cubs manager Dale Sveum, whose baby bears had just been thrashed in four straight and outscored by 22 runs while they were at it. I don’t remember getting manhandled that bad in any kind of series I’ve ever been a part of. Hopefully these young guys–the team that we’re trying to build–can look back on this and learn a lot from it and know exactly where you got to be as a team to get there.”
Johnson, managing to win. Sveum, managing to survive. You get the feeling the Cubs didn’t learn a thing Thursday night, other than if you can’t beat ’em, try to bean ’em or beat ’em up.
“It’s probably not going to help them avoid their first 100-loss season in [Cubs president of baseball operations] Theo Epstein’s lifetime,” writes the Sun-Times‘s Gordon Wittenmyer, “but the fight the Cubs showed in Thursday’s 70-man scuffle with the Washington Nationals was a significant step in the growing process for the young team, said some of the clubhouse elders.”
If that’s so, how come no less than Cub first baseman Anthony Rizzo all but said after the drubbing was done that there was no earthly or other reason to think about throwing at Harper?
“I don’t think he was over the top at all,” Rizzo told the Chicago Tribune of Harper’s immediate response after Castillo bent him in half. “Things escalated. Bryce, it wasn’t like he was running his mouth or saying anything. He plays this game the right way. He plays hard. He’s real exciting to watch. Playing against him, you have to contain him.”
If Rizzo said as much to his teammates after it was all over, he’d have established himself as a legitimate team leader right away. Because the Cubs showed the wrong kind of fight Thursday night, but the Nats showed the right kind all week long. Among other things, it’s the kind of fight that doesn’t send you home for the winter to watch the postseason on television while leaving behind the impression you’re nothing but a bunch of sore losers.