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Blue Jays

Giving in to Vengeance Proves Costly for Blue Jays

The Blue Jays lost reliever Joaquin Benoit (possibly for the year) and second baseman Devon Travis to injury after a couple benches-clearing incidents with the Yankees.

by John Lott
Sep 28 2016, 3:00pm

Photo by Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Joaquin Benoit approached his media audience on crutches, his left calf encased in a black walking boot. He sat down gingerly, guarding his leg from bearing the bulk of his 250 pounds. And after he talked about the bizarre manner by which he tore his calf muscle and the impact of the injury on his team, he offered an opinion he admitted might be unpopular.

He did not say so—he really didn't have to—but it might be unpopular with some of the hitters in his Blue Jays clubhouse, too.

Notably, hitters like Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista.

"I believe as pitchers, we're entitled to use the whole plate and pitch in if we want to if that's the way we're going to succeed," Benoit said. "I believe that right now that baseball is taking things so far, that in some situations, most hitters believe that they cannot be brushed out. Some teams take it personally."

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As his own team did on Monday night, leading to a wholly unnecessary and preventable series of nasty events, and the loss to injury of two players—Benoit, a superb late-inning reliever, and Devon Travis, the second baseman and leadoff hitter whose .299 batting average leads the team.

Two bench-clearing scrums occurred, in part, because hitters who habitually lean over the plate wearing body armour object to the natural consequence of an occasional close shave. When that happens, they expect their pitchers to retaliate. And then, the benches empty in a show of pseudo-bravado, with the principal antagonists left to curse and point at each other while their guardians keep them apart.

The show is silly. The potential consequences can be dire, as the Blue Jays found out Monday night.

Benoit felt something pop in his leg as he was running from the bullpen to join the second fracas. Travis jammed his left shoulder—the same one doctors cut open twice last year—when he was jostled in the pileup.

Benoit will not be able to pitch for at least two weeks, probably longer. Travis is "day-to-day," meaning the team has no idea when he'll be back. He thought he might be able to play Thursday, but there was a distinctly anxious tone in his voice.

Benoit and Travis were injured because of baseball's venerable—and ludicrous—culture of retaliation. Payback was the pretext.

After Yankees pitcher Luis Severino nicked Donaldson on his well-padded elbow in the first inning, Jays starter J.A. Happ retorted in the second with one pitch that nearly hit Chase Headley and another that nailed him.

One pitch too late, dawdling umpire Todd Tichenor got around to warning both benches, which did not prevent their occupants from spilling onto the field and shoving each other about.

Severino had been legitimately wild in the first inning, when he hit Donaldson and later walked in a run. But in the second, he hit what he was aiming at, which was Justin Smoak. That sparked a brawl that was considerably more pugnacious than the first.

Tempers flared between the AL East rivals. Photo by Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

And certainly more costly for the Blue Jays, who were forced to navigate their final six games in a tight wild-card race without two key players.

***

Benoit, 39, had helped stabilize a once-wobbly bullpen after he joined the Jays in a July 26 trade. This is his 15th big-league season. He had visions of going to the playoffs for a fifth time. He may go next week on crutches.

A reporter asked him whether he could find anything positive to take away from Monday night's skirmishes. The predictable response would have mentioned something innocuous about team solidarity and protecting your hitters.

But Benoit did not take the easy way out. He addressed an issue that bothers many pitchers—the increasing sense of entitlement of certain sluggers to the inside part of the plate and their righteous indignation when a pitcher tries to claim that sliver for himself.

The Blue Jays could be without Benoit's services for the rest of the season. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Baseball is fine with all of that because it forces pitchers to throw strikes over the middle and outside portions of the plate, increasing the likelihood of home runs, Benoit said. And, he added, "home runs sell."

(Through Monday's games, big-league batters had hit 5,447 home runs, which will come close to the all-time record of 5,692 by season's end. As Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports recently reported, batters are hitting homers in 3.06 percent of their plate appearances, an all-time high.)

Asked whether he objected to the rule whereby umpires warn both benches to cease and desist if payback pitches start to fly, Benoit replied: "That's fine, as long as you don't take away the strike zone where you can't pitch inside, and the umpires don't get too jumpy if you throw a pitch in and brush the hitter out."

***

Donaldson hit a home run and a single in his first two at-bats in the Jays' 5-1 win over the Orioles on Tuesday night. In his third at-bat, Baltimore starter Kevin Gausman buzzed him up and in. Donaldson lurched backwards and let his momentum take him on a histrionic trotting trip that ended at his own dugout before he ambled back to the plate. In the Orioles' dugout, manager Buck Showalter frowned and shook his head.

This time, the Blue Jays did not retaliate. Perhaps Monday's shenanigans had hit home: retaliation is a bad risk when you're fighting for a playoff spot. Players can get hurt or suspended. Losing Benoit and Travis, for however long, may sabotage the team's chances of going deep into the postseason, or even getting there.

Josh Donaldson doesn't like getting pitched inside. Photo by Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Before the start of Tuesday's critical series against Baltimore, Jays manager John Gibbons complained that opponents typically pitch inside to his batters, which is understandable, because that happens everywhere, especially to teams blessed with home-run hitters that crowd the plate. Pitchers know what happens if they let sluggers extend their arms.

"Teams pitch us inside, no doubt about that," Gibbons said. "We've had some close calls. Donaldson has been hit in the face. He almost got hit in the face again, I think it was in Yankee Stadium the last time we were there a couple of weeks ago...

"Sometimes, you've just got to deal with things. One thing that's key to the success of a team is that they stick together. That's all I'm going to say on that."

For the Blue Jays' sake, perhaps he should have something else to say to his players. Stick to baseball. If you're a batter and a pitcher crowds you, show some restraint. To hell with retaliation. There's nothing macho about behaving like carping kids on a playground, especially when your playoff ambitions are on the line.