Brian McCann says his sign wasn’t a middle finger, but is the Nationals-Braves tiff over?

(Alex Brandon/AP)

(Alex Brandon/AP)

Somebody sent Brian McCann the screenshot last night, and he thought little of it. He was crouched behind the plate with Bryce Harper standing in the left-handed batter’s box. The signal he gave to Julio Teheran appeared to be one middle finger – the universal sign to plunk a batter.

“I immediately thought no one would believe it, because it’s a Photoshop,” McCann said. “Apparently, that’s not the case.”

The photo circulated around Twitter and other corners of the Internet today and sat at the center of lingering conversation about the Braves and Nationals‘ bench-clearing brouhaha. Some fans – and even some players inside the Nationals’ clubhouse – believed McCann had ordered Teheran to hit Harper. “If I got the middle finger,” one big league pitcher said, “I would hit somebody.”

Teheran did hit Harper with a 94-mph fastball, which led to a brief benches-clearing tiff. Today, McCann defended himself with no equivocation and said he had not signaled a middle finger.

“No, c’mon” McCann said. “It’s a Photoshop. You can go back and look at the video.”

The picture may not have been a Photoshop, but a review of the video backs up McCann. He flashes three signs quickly – a pinkie first, then an index finger, and finally, the sign in question. In a screen shot taken off a laptop or a computer screen, it appears to be a solitary middle finger.

MASN’s feed, zoomed in and slowed down on a monitor, shows a truer image. McCann clearly puts down two fingers. The middle finger obscures his index finger, but it’s definitely there.

“People can do whatever they to do nowadays,” McCann said. “Everything is, do whatever you want, computer stuff. There’s film, and you can go watch it.”

If McCann had flashed two fingers, the universal sign for a curveball, then why did Teheran throw a fastball? With Anthony Rendon on second base, McCann put down three different signals to ensure the Nationals couldn’t pick up on the Braves’ signs. The pinkie pointing to the outside part of the plate was a fastball away, and McCann set up on the outside corner.

McCann wanted the Nationals to know he had not called for Harper to be hit. During batting practice, he chatted with Nationals veteran Scott Hairston.

Of course, the signs in that situation can be irrelevant. If the Braves wanted to hit Harper after he stared down a mammoth homer and took a leisurely trot around the bases, they would not need to coordinate on the field at that moment. It’s also possible Teheran took it upon himself to hit Harper.

It’s hard to ignore the central facts: Harper crushed a homer and admired it, and the very next time he came to bat, he absorbed a first-pitch, 94-mph fastball in the backside, the bull’s-eye for a pitcher looking to send a statement.

“It’s how he interpreted it,” McCann said. “Everybody’s got their perception of it. I don’t think we’re tying to put him on first base there to face two of their best, hottest hitters. If he felt like there was intent there, that’s his opinion.”

The question now is whether the hard feelings will continue tonight, with Jordan Zimmermann on the mound. Last year, you may recall, Zimmermann hit Cole Hamels with a pitch after Hamels drilled Harper. Zimmermann denied he had hit Hamels on purpose. Last night, home plate umpire Joe West gave an emphatic warning and Gio Gonzalez never threw at anyone. Will tonight turn into a snowball fight?

“It’s just baseball as usual,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said. Johnson grinned as a long silence followed, and then he broke up laughing.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” McCann said. “We’re just trying to focus on winning the ballgame.”

The way these things work, even if Zimmermann keeps his fastball in the holster tonight does not mean the incident has necessarily passed. Teams and pitchers will often wait weeks, months or even years to retaliate, all the better not to attract suspicion. Then again, down 14½ games to the Braves, the Nationals may be a team looking to pick a fight.

After Harper’s beaning, the Braves’ and Nationals’ Twitter feeds traded barbs. Braves General Manager Frank Wren apologized in comments made to MLB.com.

The occasion of the benches clearing, naturally, allowed Johnson to share a story from his playing days.

“I was hitting a bunch of home runs, and we were playing the Cubs,” Johnson said. “Their manager, Leo Durocher, he came up to the batting cage and said, ‘Johnson, you hitting 40 homers, you’ll be lucky if you hit five next year.’ I turned to him and I said, ‘Leo, you’ll be lucky if you’re in baseball.’

“The first time up, a pitcher named Jerry Reuss was pitching. He shook off two or three signs and drilled me right here in the top of my shoulder. I said, ‘Thank you, Leo,’ as I was going to first. I knew it wasn’t Jerry Reuss, because he was kind of a softy.”

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