Nationals-Cubs bench-clearing incidents: a wild night at the ballpark

September 7, 2012

The fireworks that emerged from the Nationals’ four-game series sweep of the Cubs resulted from a potent Nationals offense and the fiery response from frustrated Cubs players and coaches. Thursday’s two bench-clearing incidents revealed much about both teams and situations each is in: the Nationals deep in a pennant race without any letup and the Cubs struggling through a tough season. Much occurred on the field on Thursday and here are some remaining topics and repercussions to consider:

Nationals stood to lose more than the Cubs

The Nationals are playing for a playoff spot and the Cubs, who carry the second-worst record in baseball, have long since been eliminated. If any Nationals players had reacted too strongly, with punches or more, it would have hurt them more. If Michael Morse had responded more forcefully to Cubs catcher Steve Clevenger’s push or hadn’t been restrained, he could have been ejected, and maybe as a result, faced a suspension. Losing Morse or any other player for a game or handful would have hurt the Nationals more than if a Cubs player were in the same situation. (Three Cubs were ejected: Clevenger, reliever Manuel Corpas and, earlier, bench coach Jamie Quirk.)

“We’re in a pennant race,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said. “We’ve got to be mild citizens. We don’t start things but we’re not going to completely back down from anything. But that was, you worry about somebody getting hurt or somebody getting suspended because of something they did. I had a conversation with several of the guys and we just can’t react. Even if somebody got smoked, we can’t hit somebody.”

Added Adam LaRoche: “That’s what Davey and Randy and the guys, Trent, were trying to get everybody back and say ‘Listen, if one of us does something it’s going to cost us a lot more than one of their guys at this point in the year.’ So I think for them most part guys kept their head on their shoulders. It didn’t get too out of control. That’s not what we need this time of year – get a suspension or somebody break a finger or something.”


Alex Brandon/AP

Nationals unapologetic about style of play

Several Nationals players and Johnson insisted that stealing bases, swinging at a 3-0 pitch and continuing to play aggressively with a five-run lead was acceptable. The Cubs, clearly, took offense to that. Johnson insists that his players not back down even with that size of a lead because, if not, it displays what he calls a “losing attitude.” And some Nationals players pointed to a July 20 game against the Atlanta Braves in which the Nationals couldn’t hold a 9-0 lead and eventually lost as evidence for continuing to play hard.

“We’re in a pennant race, we’re going to swing 3-0, we’re going to do everything,” Johnson said. “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. I don’t know why they’re getting on about swinging 3-0. Their first baseman [Anthony Rizzo] swung 3-0 in the first inning. What’s the difference with the bases loaded in the fifth with only a five-run lead and two outs?”

“We lost to the Braves earlier this year,” added Morse. “You look at games, it’s never over until the last out. 

“It’s still a game,” Michael Gonzalez said. “We’ve been playing ball the way we have, and there’s nothing wrong with doing that. Again, I think this team is young. I respect those guys in the other clubhouse. But sometimes I think they need to learn how to play the game a little better. There was nothing wrong with how we played ball. The good thing is, nothing escalated from there.”

Harper a target again

Harper has been at the center of several memorable moments in the Nationals season far, occasionally the target of opposing teams. Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels intentionally plunked Harper on May 6. Miami Marlins Manager Ozzie Guillen targeted Harper on July 15, calling him “unprofessional” and saying he used too much pine tar on his bat. Thursday, however, was more than likely a product of coincidence.

Harper was the first Nationals player to bat after the benches cleared for the first time in the fifth inning, which included a shouting match between third base coach Bo Porter and Quirk, sparked by Jayson Werth swinging at a 3-0 pitch with a 7-2 lead. It would have been too obvious to the umpires if Werth had been hit by a pitch or thrown at inside when his at-bat continued in the fifth. Werth flew out to right field to end the inning and Harper led off in the sixth inning. Cubs pitcher Lendy Castillo could have chosen another hitter to challenge but Harper seems more of a product of being the next batter up in the lineup.

“I thought something was going to happen because of what happened before,” Harper said. “I think…that’s just baseball, I guess.”

And there was nothing about Harper, in particular, that rubbed some Cubs players the wrong way. He played his aggressive style of baseball, pushing a base hit into a triple in the first inning and scoring on a groundout from third on a groundout to the pitcher.

“Things escalated, Bryce – it’s not like he was running his mouth or saying anything,” the Cubs’ Rizzo said. “He plays this game the right way. He plays hard. He’s real exciting to watch and playing against him you got to contain him. … I don’t think he was over-the-top at all.”

Team defended and protected Harper

The instant that Castillo threw inside at Harper’s knees, forcing him to jump back out of the way, the intent seemed clear. Cubs Manager Dale Sveum defended Castillo: “Castillo’s a Rule 5 kid that’s thrown a lot of those [kind of] pitches. There was no intention to hit Bryce Harper.” 

 Clevenger and Layne immediately stepped in front of Harper, glaring and yelling back at Castillo. As players jumped out of the dugout, Werth immediately rushed over to Harper to guard him and stand in front of him. Ryan Zimmerman, who was in the on-deck circle, stepped in front of Harper as well.

Harper said after the game that he planned on remaining calm, as to not hurt himself or the Nationals.

“I wasn’t going to do anything to jeopardize the next week or so or be out five games for doing something dumb,” he said. “I was just trying to stay in that moment and not really worry about what was happening.”

Werth and Zimmerman have been among the veteran players who have helped Harper adjust to the major leagues, and in one small moment Thursday, they showed how they continue to do so. And because the Nationals are tight-knit group, and teammates defend each other, they also displayed that quality.

“It’s good to see that your teammates got your back,” Morse said. “Especially for Bryce. It’s good to see that. Our team is together. We’re real close. If something happens like that, of course everybody is going to care. I’m just glad nothing came out of it.”

Gonzalez’s role, possible consequences

Major league officials will review the film and the umpire’s report on the game before deciding on the suspensions or fines, if any, will be handed down. Gonzalez was the lone Nationals player to be ejected from the game.

It’s unclear exactly what angered Gonzalez. The second bench-clearing incident occurred in the sixth inning after Castillo threw a pitch far inside at Harper. Both dugouts and bullpens cleared and players converged around home plate.

After that died down and players began retreating, The Cubs’ Rizzo put his hand on Gonzalez’s shoulder, perhaps to send him away. Gonzalez turned back, and he and a Cubs player began screaming at each, Gonzalez pointing that direction. Players converged again and that’s when the pushing started.

Following the game, Gonzalez declined to say exactly what sparked him, but said he “questioned” some of the Cubs about what they did.

“I didn’t appreciate what they were doing,” Gonzalez said of throwing inside at Harper. “… I’m a pitcher. I know it was intentional.”

Gonzalez was pulled away from the mass of players and doesn’t appear to shove anyone. So his role in the fracas seems limited to that. Umpiring crew chief Jerry Layne said Gonzalez, along with Cubs catcher Steve Clevenger and reliever Manuel Corpas, were ejected for being “the instigators of the true fight.”

Why Porter wasn’t ejected

Porter came up to the Cubs dugout steps after Quirk yelled and pointed at him in the fifth inning during a delay on the field. Clevenger went into the dugout to change his glove because the webbing has snapped and as he headed back towards home plate Quirk and Porter got animated. According to Layne, Quirk was shouting obscenities at Porter.

“[Porter] got very close of being out of order himself,” Layne said. “Had he got into the dugout and started a fracas, he would have been ejected. But I thought this was all stemming from what Jamie Quirk did and he started it. So I got the person that started it.”

FROM TODAY’S POST

The Nationals swept the Cubs, 9-2, but the game was overshadowed by bench-clearing incidents, writes Adam Kilgore.

Nationals are built to last, which is why they need Stephen Strasburg for the long haul, writes Thomas Boswell.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Benches clear, four ejected after two incidents

Strasburg’s final home start set for Friday

Burnett appears close to a return

Harper’s base running sparks Nats 

Ramos in good spirits

Nats aren’t playing down to opponents

Espinosa key to offensive output

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

 Hagerstown was off, playoff series continues Friday.

 Auburn was off, playoff series continues Friday, too.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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Adam Kilgore · September 7, 2012

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