JUPITER, Fla. — As players and coaches gazed across the Roger Dean Stadium diamond Monday afternoon, a sinking feeling spread in the Washington Nationals dugout. They could see St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa glowering at Nyjer Morgan as he jogged down the right field line, and they worried about what that look meant.
Morgan had made incidental contact with first baseman Albert Pujols while trying to beat out a bunt single. Several Nationals could sense that La Russa did not classify the contact as “incidental.” And so that play sparked three hit batsmen and, eventually, the rare scene that unfolded several innings later: a benches-clearing fracas during spring training.
The brouhaha included hit batters by Chris Carpenter (who denied any intent) and Livan Hernandez (who embraced it) and culminated in the seventh inning, when former Nationals reliever Miguel Batista plunked Ian Desmond with a fastball in the back. Desmond extended his arms. La Russa jawed at him. Players streamed from dugouts and bullpens on to the field.
“It’s part of the game,” Desmond said. “We were really trying to keep the fans around. Pujols came out of the game. Carpenter came out of the game. We knew they were going to leave, so we had to have some entertainment for them.”
Afterward, Desmond said Batista’s pitch did not hurt because “Miggy throws like Miss Iowa, anyway,” a nod to the nickname Batista gave himself last year after the game in which he replaced Stephen Strasburg at the last minute.
The teams had history. On Aug. 28 at Nationals Park, Morgan ran into Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson despite the lack of a play at home plate. The Cardinals and La Russa, then, may have had a closer eye on Morgan. He led off the fifth by bunting. Catcher Gerald Laird pounced on the ball and fired to first, a wide throw inside of the base path. Morgan’s speed made it a close play. As Morgan bolted through the base and down the right field line, Pujols shook his glove hand and dropped his glove to the infield dirt.
The trainer came out to check on Pujols, who stayed in the game. Perhaps Morgan’s spike caught Pujols’s hand as he ran by, but there would seem to be no possible way he could have done that on purpose.
“I know they felt that Pujols got stepped on, that that was intentionally by Nyjer,” Riggleman said. “That’s totally inaccurate. Nyjer was running to first.”
Two batters later, with one out, Carpenter hit Laynce Nix with a pitch. After the game, Carpenter would say he had poor command to the left side of the plate all game. “I did not hit Laynce Nix on purpose,” Carpenter said.
The Nationals were convinced otherwise. “There’s no question about that,” Nix said. “As for why, I think you have to ask them.”
In the bottom of the fifth, with one out, Hernandez drilled Colby Rasmus with a fastball in the midsection. The Nationals thought the incident had passed.
“I hit the guy because he hit somebody,” Hernandez said. “That’s it. If you hit somebody, I’m going to hit somebody. In old school baseball — and La Russa knows — you hit somebody first, and you’re supposed to take the next one. That’s it. It’s over.”
Before the seventh, both Batista and Jason Motte warmed up in the Cardinals’ bullpen. “We noticed that,” Riggleman said. “There was a question in my mind that Batista was going to hit somebody.”
Batista retired Morgan and then drilled Desmond. Morgan was the first one hopping out of the dugout for the Nationals. Coach Trent Jewett, who knows Morgan from their days together in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ minor league system, put his arm around Morgan and led him away from the scrum.
The most demonstrative person was Riggleman, who screamed at La Russa with an index finger protruding just as things seemed to be settling down. Desmond tried to speak with La Russa, again as if he wanted an explanation.
“It’s very typical of playing these guys,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “I’ll leave it at that. I’ve played against them a lot, and for whatever reason, gone into the same situation.”
“You never know what [La Russa’s] thinking,” LaRoche added. “You never know what he’s telling his pitchers. You never know until after it happens. And it’s a shame.”
The Nationals and Cardinals play Friday in Viera. Both managers expressed belief nothing more would come of Monday’s incident and said it grew out of misconceptions by each side over what was intentional and not. Riggleman and La Russa have long been friends, and “this doesn’t change any of that,” Riggleman said. “Tony and I are great friends.”