- Senior writer of SweetSpot baseball blog
- Former deputy editor of Page 2
- Been with ESPN.com since 1995
I don’t expect Fernando Tatis Jr. to hit a triple, slide into third base, get tangled up with Justin Turner and then pop up and try to punch Turner in the face, like what happened with George Brett and Graig Nettles in the 1976 American League Championship Series. I don’t expect the Yankees and Rays to engage in a free-for-all that ends up with Gerrit Cole slamming a Rays coach to the ground, like we witnessed with Pedro Martinez and Don Zimmer in the infamous 2003 Red Sox-Yankees melee in the ALCS.
But one of the interesting subplots of all four division series (the American League games start Monday in California, the National League on Tuesday in Texas) is that there is some animosity between the teams that should heighten the intensity of the games. Let’s review the recent history of the matchups, ranked based on the level of bad blood.
Background: The Astros dominated the AL West from 2017 to 2019, winning 100-plus games each season, with the A’s finishing in second place in both 2018 and 2019 with 97-win seasons that netted them only one-and-done playoff appearances in the wild-card game. Then came the offseason revelation that the Astros had illegally stolen signs during the 2017 season and into 2018, casting doubt over all their recent accomplishments.
What happened: In November, former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, who joined the A’s in 2018, told The Athletic that the Astros stole signs electronically during their World Series-winning season in 2017. “That’s not playing the game the right way,” Fiers said. “They were advanced and willing to go above and beyond to win.”
An MLB investigation eventually led to the firings of Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch, plus Red Sox manager Alex Cora (an Astros coach in 2017 who was determined to have played a large role in the scheme). While Astros players escaped punishment, many in the game viewed Fiers as a snitch — after all, the assumption is that the Astros weren’t the only team cheating, but they’re the team forever hung with the “cheaters” label.
The brawl: On Aug. 9, A’s outfielder Ramon Laureano took exception to being hit for the second time in the game and pointed and yelled at Astros pitcher Humberto Castellanos. He then charged the Astros’ dugout following a shouting match with Astros coach Alex Cintron that was instigated by Cintron, who apparently made insulting comments about Laureano’s mother. Even though COVID-19 protocols banned in-game altercations, the benches emptied and there was a minor brawl. Cintron was suspended for 20 games, Laureano for six.
What they’re saying now: The A’s have played the Astros tough over the past three seasons, with the Astros holding a 26-22 edge — although the A’s won seven out of 10 in 2020, helping them take the division title. “You can feel it,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “We’ve played a lot of emotional games against them.”
Astros manager Dusty Baker is in his first season with the club after replacing Hinch, but he knows the history. “It will be a good series,” he said. “And they said they wanted us anyway, so you’ve got to be careful what you ask for.”
Fiers didn’t pitch against the Astros in the regular season but started Game 3 of the wild-card series against the White Sox, so he’s a possibility to start in this series. Astros outfielder Josh Reddick, a teammate of Fiers in 2017, downplayed facing him during a video call with reporters on Saturday.
“It’s about the game,” he said. “Whoever is out there, whether it’s Mike Fiers or Clayton Kershaw, you try to treat it the same and don’t let your emotions get the best of you.”
Indeed, the Astros are playing with a bigger chip on their shoulders. “It’s all about silencing the haters, and that is what this year is about,” Reddick said.
Background: The Rays and Yankees have been competitive rivals since 2008, when the Rays suddenly went from joke to consistent contender, with the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays ranking 1-2-3, respectively, in the American League in wins since 2008. The rivalry picked up steam in 2018 when CC Sabathia hit a Rays batter, the Rays responded and then Sabathia intentionally hit another batter, getting ejected from the game and costing himself $500,000. (It was his final start of the season and he finished two innings short of a bonus.) “I don’t really make decisions based on money, I guess,” Sabathia said. “I just felt it was the right thing to do.” Then last year, Aaron Boone’s infamous “My guys are f—ing savages in that f—ing box” rant came after a game against the Rays. Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash would have a declaration of his own after a flare-up this season.
What happened: In a Sept. 1 game, with the Yankees leading 5-3 in the ninth inning with two out, Aroldis Chapman’s first pitch, a 101 mph fastball, buzzed just over the head of the Rays’ Michael Brosseau. The umpires issued warnings to both clubs, but Cash was ejected from the game. After Brosseau struck out to end it, he exchanged words with somebody on the Yankees and the benches emptied, although there was no physical altercation. The Rays were upset because Masahiro Tanaka had hit Joey Wendle earlier in the game with a 95 mph fastball, which Wendle and Cash also believed was intentional.
After the game, Cash had some words for the Yankees. “We’re talking about a 100 mph fastball over a young man’s head,” Cash said. “It makes no sense. It’s poor judgment, poor coaching, it’s just poor teaching what they’re doing and what they’re allowing to [happen], the chirping from the dugout.” Then Cash threw down the hammer: “Somebody’s got to be accountable. And the last thing I’ll say on this is that I’ve got whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 miles per hour. Period.”
The troll: A few weeks later, Rays pitcher Charlie Morton showed up to a video call wearing a shirt with a graphic featuring four horses peering over a stable fence. “It was in my locker last week and I like horses,” Morton said. “I rode when I was younger.” Bullpen coach Stan Boroski was also seen wearing the shirt. Both declined to name who ordered the shirts, but it was clear Cash’s comment had become a rallying cry for the pitching staff.
What they’re saying now: The Rays won the season series 8-2, but the Yankees didn’t always have their full lineup intact. For now, both teams are playing nice, as ESPN’s Marly Rivera wrote the other day. “I think our players have shown time and time again that they handle — whatever outside factors are present — they handle their business on the field really, really well, and our focus is going to go to win a series,” Cash said on Friday. “Find a way to win a series against a very good team that has gotten healthier here as of late.”
Boone called the Rays the “big, bad No. 1 seed of the AL East” — ignoring, of course, that the Yankees were the big preseason favorite to win the division and have a payroll about three times larger than Tampa Bay’s. “We want to win and advance, and that’s where our focus is going to lie. We don’t want to get caught up in the back and forth,” Boone said. “There’s going to be things that come up that probably become a little bit contentious within the series, but I’m confident that our guys will do a good job of keeping their blinders on. We understand what’s at stake. I am confident that’s where our focus will be.”
Note the unintentional reference to blinders. May the best horse win this race.
Background: Fans of these two teams haaaaaaate each other. Padres fans basically hate Los Angeles over everything because L.A. gets all the attention in Southern California and Dodgers fans go to games in San Diego and act like jerks. Dodgers fans view San Diego as the annoying little brother who acts like there’s a real rivalry every time the Padres are decent. The Padres are back again, they’re young and confident, and the Dodgers’ reign atop the NL West might finally be at risk.
Several incidents this season fueled the rivalry. In early August, Tatis got in a rundown between third and home, eventually colliding with Dodgers catcher Will Smith. Turner had a few words for Tatis, and Tatis had a few words back, but the episode didn’t escalate. A couple of nights later, Tatis hit a long home run while the Padres were trailing 4-0 and flipped his bat, sparking a comeback that eventually ended in a 7-6 defeat when Chris Taylor nailed Trent Grisham at home plate for the final out. Then came the September incident.
What happened: On Sept. 14, the Padres beat the Dodgers 7-2 to draw within 1½ games of L.A. Rookie center fielder Grisham hit a sixth-inning home run off Clayton Kershaw that tied the score at 1 — and took a second or two to enjoy the home run and turned to the Padres’ dugout before rounding the bases. Several Dodgers began chirping at him as he rounded third, and Grisham offered some words.
“On this stage, against that pitcher, I’ve never hit a bigger home run,” Grisham said after the game. “We looked forward to this series. It is one of the biggest series of the year. The look in the dugout was, ‘Let’s go, let’s pick it up. Let’s get after it and go get this game.'”
Kershaw downplayed the incident, but others on the Dodgers did not, feeling it was particularly bad form to show up a pitcher with Kershaw’s résumé. “I don’t mind guys admiring a homer; certainly it’s a big game, a big hit,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I just felt to overstay at home plate, against a guy like Clayton, who’s got the respect of everyone in the big leagues for what he’s done in this game, I just took exception to that. There’s a certain respect that you give a guy if you homer against him.”
With the Padres at that point threatening for the division lead, the Dodgers won the final two games of the series, extending their lead to 3½ games and never looking back as they won their eighth consecutive NL West title.
What they’re saying now: Look, the Dodgers are too professional and too focused on that elusive World Series championship to worry about Grisham’s home run from September. Things might get a little awkward, however, if the players run into each other in the hotel. Due to the COVID-19 protocols for the series in Arlington, Texas, the teams are staying in the same hotel. Roberts said it is definitely different having to “share the same space.”
Background: The Marlins and Braves have had their issues going back to 2013, when the late Jose Fernandez, then a rookie, hit a home run, flung his bat and watched the ball. Braves catcher Brian McCann had words with Fernandez as he crossed home plate, leading to a benches-clearing incident. “I just told him you can’t do that. You can get someone hurt,” McCann said after the game. Fernandez apologized after the game and things cooled down … until another incident with another rookie, this one for the Braves.
What happened: Braves rookie Ronald Acuña Jr. was in the midst of a big hot streak in August 2018 — he had homered eight times in his previous eight games, including two the night before against the Marlins — when he led off against righty Jose Ureña on Aug. 15. Ureña drilled Acuña with his first pitch — a 97.5 mph fastball that was the fastest first pitch Ureña had ever thrown — knocking Acuña out of the game. Urena was ejected and Braves manager Brian Snitker was seething after the game.
“To get hit like that when all he’s doing is playing the game, he’s not doing anything to show anybody up,” Snitker said. “He’s just playing the game. He’s a young, talented kid. That’s a shame that happened. What happens if they hit him there and it breaks his elbow and he’s done for the year?”
Benches ended up clearing twice in the game. “It was gutless,” Freddie Freeman said. “I know that wasn’t the Marlins. That was just Jose Ureña.”
Acuña would get his revenge the next time the Braves played the Marlins, eight days later, with a 432-foot home run in his second at-bat. He watched, he flipped his bat and then clapped his hands as he reached home and jumped on the plate. Later in the game, Javy Guerra of the Marlins hit Acuña with another pitch. The next time the Braves faced Ureña, in 2019, Kevin Gausman threw behind Ureña and was immediately ejected.
It happened again: On Sept. 7 of this season, Ureña hit Acuña again, with a tailing 95 mph fastball. Acuña wasn’t happy, and while both benches were warned, it was clearly unintentional and Acuña walked to first base without incident. Ureña broke his forearm in the Marlins’ regular-season finale and is out for the season, but there’s enough history between the franchises that he doesn’t necessarily have to be in the middle of it.
What they’re saying now: With Ureña injured, much of the potential edge in this series should be pushed to the wayside. The storyline will be the underdog Marlins against the favored Braves and their powerful lineup. The teams are obviously familiar with each after playing 10 times in the regular season — including a 29-9 victory for the Braves in early September that created a lopsided run differential. (The Braves went 5-4 in the other nine games with a plus-4 differential.) “I think they’ve made some good offseason moves to help that young pitching they have accumulated,” Snitker said. “They’ve done a good job of putting that team together. That team was going to be good regardless of whether the season was 60 or 162 [games]. That team was built for a six- or seven-month season.”
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